Russia proposes inspection of Syria attack site

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US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley addresses the UN Security Council meeting on Syria at the UN headquarters in New York, US. Reuters

BEIRUT/MOSCOW, (Reuters) – Russia said yesterday it will propose to the UN that international inspectors visit the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack in the Syrian town of Douma, a move which follows US President Donald Trump’s warning of quick, forceful action in response to the incident.

At least 60 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured at several sites in the alleged attack on Douma, then still occupied by rebel forces, on Saturday, according to a Syrian relief group.

President Bashar al-Assad’s government and Russia, his most powerful ally, said there was no evidence that a gas attack had taken place and the claim was bogus.

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But the incident has thrust Syria’s seven-year-old conflict back to the forefront of international concern and brought the possibility of Western military action against Mr Assad’s forces.

Further heightening the volatility, Iran, Mr Assad’s other main ally, threatened to respond to an air strike on a Syrian military base which Tehran, Damascus and Moscow have blamed on Israel.

Meanwhile on the ground, thousands of militants and their families arrived in rebel-held northwestern Syria after surrendering Douma to government forces. The evacuation deal restores Assad’s control over the entire eastern Ghouta – formerly the biggest rebel bastion near Damascus.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday the Kremlin would submit a resolution to the UN Security Council proposing that inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) investigate the alleged attack in Douma.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said there was no threat of the situation in Syria resulting in a military clash between Russia and the US.

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TASS news agency quoted Nogdanov as saying Russia and US officials had “working contacts” over Syria and he believed common sense would prevail.

On Monday, Mr Trump told a meeting of military leaders and national security advisers in Washington he would take a decision that night or shortly after on a response and that the US had “a lot of options militarily” on Syria.

“But we can’t let atrocities like we all witnessed … we can’t let that happen in our world … especially when we’re able to because of the power of the US, the power of our country, we’re able to stop it,” Mr Trump said.

At the UN Security Council, the US plans to call for a vote on Tuesday for a new inquiry into responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria, diplomats said.

If the US proposal is put to a vote, it would likely be vetoed by Russia.

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At a meeting on Monday, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said Washington would respond to the suspected weapons attack in Syria regardless of whether the Security Council acted or not.

“This is basically a diplomatic set-up,” said Richard Gowan, a UN expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Russia will inevitably veto the US resolution criticizing Assad, and Washington will use this to justify military strikes,” he said. “A breakdown at the UN will also make it easier for France to justify strikes.”

France said yesterday it would respond if it was proven that Mr Assad’s forces carried out the attack. Any riposte would most likely be in coordination with the US, government aides said.

US officials told Reuters that Washington was weighing a multinational military response. Washington bombed a Syrian government air base last year over a toxic gas attack.

Russian UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia accused the US, France and Britain of stoking international tensions by engaging in a “confrontational policy against Russia and Syria”.

“Russia is being unpardonably threatened. The tone with which this is being done has gone beyond the threshold of what is acceptable, even during the Cold War.”

Initial US assessments have been unable to determine conclusively what materials were used in the attack and could not say with certainty that Mr Assad’s forces were behind it.

Mr Trump said, however, that Washington was “getting more clarity” on who was responsible.

A previous joint inquiry of the UN and the OPCW had found the Syrian government used the nerve agent sarin in an April, 2017 attack and has also several times used chlorine as a weapon. Damascus blamed Islamic State militants for mustard gas use.

The suspected chemical attack came at the end of one of the deadliest Syrian government offensives of the war, with an estimated 1,700 civilians killed in eastern Ghouta in air and artillery bombardments.

Despite the international revulsion over the chemical weapons attacks, the death toll from such incidents is in the dozens, a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of combatants and civilians killed since an uprising against Mr Assad’s rule broke out in March 2011.

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