Chemical inspectors launch probe in Syria after Western strikes

1 / 2
The United Nation vehicles carrying the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inspectors arrive in Damascus, Syria, on April 14, 2018. (REUTERS/Ali Hashisho)
2 / 2
A journalist films the wreckage of a building described as part of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC) compound in the Barzeh district, north of Damascus, during a press tour organised by the Syrian information ministry, on April 14, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 16 April 2018

Chemical inspectors launch probe in Syria after Western strikes

  • The OPCW itself had declared that the Syrian government’s chemical weapons stockpile had been removed in 2014
  • US “locked and loaded” should another gas attack occur

DAMASCUS: International inspectors launched their investigation Sunday into an alleged chemical attack near Damascus that prompted an unprecedented wave of Western strikes against Syria’s regime.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, the regime’s top ally, warned that fresh strikes would spark “chaos,” but Washington vowed economic sanctions against Moscow rather than further military action.
US, French and British missiles destroyed sites suspected of hosting chemical weapons development and storage facilities Saturday, but the buildings were mostly empty and the Western trio swiftly reverted to its diplomatic efforts.
US President Donald Trump lauded the “perfectly executed” strike, the biggest international attack on President Bashar Assad’s regime during Syria’s seven-year war, but both Damascus and Syria’s opposition rubbished its impact.
A team of chemical experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in The Hague, arrived in Damascus hours after the strikes.
They have been tasked with investigating the site of the alleged April 7 attack in the town of Douma, just east of the capital Damascus, which Western powers said involved chlorine and sarin and killed dozens.
They arrived in Damascus on Saturday but there were no reports they yet had traveled to Douma to begin their field work.
An AFP reporter saw Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mokdad enter the Four Seasons hotel where the chemical experts are staying and leave three hours later.
The fact-finding team usually starts its investigation by meeting top officials, but any talks were held behind closed doors and both parties imposed a strict media blackout.
“We will ensure they can work professionally, objectively, impartially and free of any pressure,” Assistant Foreign Minister Ayman Soussan told AFP.
The OPCW itself had declared that the Syrian government’s chemical weapons stockpile had been removed in 2014, only to confirm later that sarin was used in a 2017 attack in the northern town of Khan Sheikhun.

Difficult task
The inspectors will face a difficult task, with all key players having pre-empted their findings, including Western powers, which justified the strikes by claiming they already had proof such weapons were used.
The OPCW team will also have to deal with the risk that evidence may have been removed from the site, which lies in an area that has been controlled by Russian military police and Syrian forces over the past week.
“That possibility always has to be taken into account, and investigators will look for evidence that shows whether the incident site has been tampered with,” Ralf Trapp, a consultant and member of a previous OPCW mission to Syria, told AFP.


 The Syrian military late Saturday declared Eastern Ghouta, the former rebel enclave of which Douma is the main town, fully retaken after a blistering two-month assault.
Wresting back the opposition stronghold on the doorstep of Damascus had been a priority for the resurgent regime.
US leader Trump hailed the pre-dawn strikes that lit up the sky around Damascus and exclaimed “Mission Accomplished” on Twitter.
That drew derision from his critics and parallels with president George W. Bush’s notoriously premature Iraq war victory speech on an aircraft carrier almost exactly 15 years ago.
According to American officials, the operation involved three US destroyers, a French frigate and a US submarine located in the Red Sea, the Gulf and the eastern Mediterranean.
The US air force confirmed on Sunday that B-1B bombers deployed at the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar took part in the strikes.
British Tornado and Typhoon warplanes and French Rafale jets also took part in the strikes.
The Pentagon said no further action was planned but Washington’s envoy to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, warned that the US was “locked and loaded” should another gas attack occur.
Haley later told CBS that sanctions would be announced, likely on Monday, against Russian companies supplying the Syrian regime.
British foreign minister Boris Johnson said the Syrian war would continue despite the “successful” strikes, saying the “overwhelming purpose” of the mission was to respond to repeated chemical attacks.
French President Emmanuel Macron insisted that “we have not declared war on the regime of Bashar Assad.”
Putin told his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani, also an Assad ally, that any new Western strikes in Syria would provoke “chaos in international relations.”
The two leaders “found that this illegal action seriously damaged the prospects of a political settlement in Syria,” a Kremlin statement said.
Assad denounced a “campaign of deceit and lies at the (United Nations) Security Council” after a push by Moscow on Saturday to condemn the strikes fell far short.
Macron and other Western leaders have called for a diplomatic offensive after the strikes, aiming to end a conflict that has killed more than 350,000 people and displaced half of Syria’s population.
A Western draft resolution obtained by AFP at a meeting of the UN Security Council Saturday calls for unimpeded deliveries of humanitarian aid and enforcement of a cease-fire, along with demands that Syria engage in UN-led peace talks.
But Russia has blocked countless resolutions against its Syrian ally and the regime has appeared determined to continue its military reconquest of the country.
“For all the sound and fury of these strikes, their net effect is a slap on the wrist of Bashar Assad,” said Nick Heras, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security.


What is the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons?

OPCW is the implementing body of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which entered into force in 1997. OPCW has 192 member states, who are working together to achieve a world free of chemical weapons.

Lebanese election campaign fever turns into clash between Druze parties

Updated 25 April 2018

Lebanese election campaign fever turns into clash between Druze parties

  • Lebanon's independent Sabaa party talks about exploitation of positions and money.
  • Several young men from the Sabaa party demonstrated on Tuesday outside the Ministry of Interior.

BEIRUT: Sectarian and partisan polarization resulting from fierce competition for parliamentary seats in Lebanon has led to the first armed clash between two rival Druze parties.
Machine guns were used in the clash between the Progressive Socialist Party, led by MP Walid Jumblatt, and the Lebanese Democratic Party, led by Talal Arslan, which took place on Sunday evening in the city of Choueifat, about 5 km south of Beirut.
The two parties’ leaders acted quickly to calm their supporters.
“When politicians plant seeds of hatred and grudges among people, they commit a crime against citizens who have been breaking bread together for centuries,” Jumblatt said in a tweet.
In a joint statement, the two parties stressed “the need to avoid any steps that could provoke anger among supporters or disturb citizens who look forward to freely exercising their right to vote in an atmosphere of democratic competition.”
The two parties, alongside other parties with supporters in Choueifat, such as Hezbollah, the Lebanese Forces, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the Amal Movement, have agreed on “disowning anyone who breaches security, requesting that the security forces intensify their presence in Choueifat, identifying fixed locations until the elections are over, and restraining from carrying out provocative processions.”
Campaigning lasts 24 hours before polling and has seen various kinds of violations of the electoral law.
Several young men from the Sabaa party — a group of independent activists — demonstrated on Tuesday outside the Ministry of Interior, carrying banners questioning the ministry’s role in election-related issues.
“Serious violations are taking place because the country is out of control; many are exploiting their positions and pouring (in) their money, and conflicts are happening at grassroots level — people are tearing down photos of candidates and individuals are fighting with one another,” said Gilbert Hobeish on behalf of the demonstrators.
He added: “This is unacceptable, and the minister of interior must take responsibility.”
Hobeish criticized the Electoral Supervisory Commission, saying “it only oversees the civil society or change candidates.”
“We reject this in toto,” he said.
Ali Al-Amin, a candidate on the Shbaana Haki electoral list (who was assaulted last Sunday by Hezbollah supporters in the town of Shaqra because he hung his photo outside his house), held a press conference in the town of Nabatiyah Al-Fawqa and renewed his protest against “the tyranny that silences voices, oppresses liberties and acts on its own will and temperaments, making us feel as if we were in the law of the jungle era.”
He said that “resistance isn’t anyone’s property nor is it one party’s ownership.”
He also called on “the free people of the south to decide which life they wanted and to which homeland and identity they belonged.”
Campaign fever is rising in Lebanon 48 hours before the elections are held for the first time for Lebanese communities in several Arab countries. These elections are to be held 11 days before parliamentary elections take place inside Lebanon.