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
0

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.

Decoder

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.


Sabotage of oil tankers stirs concerns over Gulf shipping

Updated 34 min 44 sec ago
0

Sabotage of oil tankers stirs concerns over Gulf shipping

  • The acts of sabotage near the UAE coast highlight new threat to maritime traffic and global oil supplies
  • Experts say increased threat to navigation and global oil supplies not limited regionally but has global dimension

DUBAI: Amid rising tensions between the US and Iran, sabotage attacks on four commercial vessels off the coast of the UAE’s Fujairah port have raised serious questions about maritime security in the Gulf.

The incidents, which included attacks on two Saudi oil tankers, were revealed by the UAE government on May 12, drawing strong condemnation from governments in the Middle East and around the world as well as the Arab League.

Now experts have warned that the sabotage attacks highlight a new threat to maritime traffic and global oil supplies.

A Saudi government source said: “This criminal act constitutes a serious threat to the security and safety of maritime navigation, and adversely affects regional and international peace and security.”

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) said the incidents threatened international maritime traffic.

While crimes on the high seas, including piracy, have tapered off in recent years, the attacks on the ships, three of which are registered to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have called into question common assumptions about the Gulf’s stability.

Opinion

This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser at Gulf State Analytics in Washington D.C., said governments of the Gulf region are mandated to watch over oceans and waterways. “On top of this requirement is the need for a new regime of maritime coordination to prevent attacks on shipping because of the repercussions for logistical chains, corporate strategies and insurance rates,” he told Arab News.

The sabotage attacks took place east of Fujairah port, outside the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway through which most Gulf oil exports pass and which Iran has threatened to block in the event of a military confrontation with the US.

Johan Obdola, president of the International Organization for Security and Intelligence, said the recent attacks underscore the need for closer intelligence-coordinated capabilities among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, including satellite communication and maritime or vessel security technology.

“The threats to oil tankers are not limited to the Gulf, but have a global dimension,” he said.

According to Obdola: “A coordinated joint task force integrating oil, intelligence security and military forces should be (established) to project and prepare (for potential future attacks). This is a time to be as united as ever.”

GCC countries have intensified security in international waters, the US navy said. Additionally, two US guided-missile destroyers entered the Gulf on May 16 in response to what the US called signs of possible Iranian aggression.

“The attack has brought (the region) a bit closer to a possible military confrontation amid the escalation in tensions between the US and Iran,” Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a former chairman of the Arab Council for Social Sciences, told Arab News.

He said Iran is purposely dragging Saudi Arabia, the UAE and possibly other Gulf countries into its fight with the US. “The credibility of the US is at stake and Trump has said he will meet any aggression with unrelenting force. If Iran continues on this path, we might see some kind of a military showdown on a limited scale.”

Given the importance of the region’s oil supplies to the US, Abdulla said “it’s not just the responsibility of Arab Gulf states but an international responsibility” to keep the shipping lanes safe.