By Laila Bassam
DAMASCUS (Reuters) – A visit by chemical weapons inspectors to the site of a suspected gas attack in Syria was delayed on Monday, British and Russian officials said, as Western powers and Russia traded accusations in the aftermath of retaliatory U.S.-led missile strikes.
Moscow, the main ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, on Sunday condemned the United States, Britain and France for refusing to wait for the findings of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inspection team on the alleged attack on Douma before they launched the strikes.
OPCW inspectors arrived in Damascus on Saturday and had planned to head to Douma, on the outskirts of the capital, on Monday. But the British delegation to the OPCW said Russia and Syria had not yet allowed inspectors access to Douma.
Britain’s Ambassador Peter Wilson said at a news conference in The Hague that the United Nations had cleared the inspectors to go but they had been unable to reach Douma because Syria and Russia had been unable to guarantee their safety.
“Unfettered access (is) essential,” a British statement said. “Russia and Syria must cooperate.”
Russia’s deputy foreign minister said the delay was due to the Western strikes.
The U.S. envoy to the global watchdog said Russia may have tampered with the site of the April 7 attack, which aid organisations say killed dozens of men, women and children.
“It is long overdue that this council condemns the Syrian government for its reign of chemical terror and demands international accountability of those responsible for these heinous acts,” U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Ward said in comments seen by Reuters.
The inspectors for the Hague-based OPCW met Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad in the presence of Russian officers and a senior Syrian security official in Damascus for about three hours on Sunday.
Washington, meanwhile, prepared to increase pressure on Russia with new economic sanctions, and European Union foreign ministers threatened similar measures.
In London and Paris, British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron faced criticism from political opponents over their decisions to take part in the air strikes against Syria.
The United States, France and Britain launched 105 missiles targeting what the Pentagon said were three chemical weapons facilities in Syria in retaliation for the suspected poison gas attack in Douma.
The Western countries blame Assad for the attack, which thrust Syria’s seven-year-old conflict into the forefront of global concern once again and heightened a diplomatic confrontation with the Kremlin. The Syrian government and its Russian ally deny involvement in any such incident.
Douma, in the eastern Goutha district, was one of the last bastions near Damascus of rebels fighting to topple Assad, and the alleged attack took place amid a ferocious government offensive.
In the aftermath, the remnants of a rebel army evacuated, handing Assad one of the biggest victories in a war that has killed about half a million people and laid waste to whole cities.
The U.S.-led strikes did nothing to alter the strategic balance or dent Assad’s supremacy and the Western allies have said the aim was to prevent the further use of chemical weapons, not to intervene in the civil war or topple Assad.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson made this clear on Monday as he arrived at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg, telling reporters: “I’m afraid the Syrian war will go on in its horrible, miserable way. But it was the world saying that we’ve had enough of the use of chemical weapons.”
The 28 ministers endorsed the missile strikes and considered steps to deepen Assad’s isolation.
“The European Union will continue to consider further restrictive measures against Syria as long as the repression continues,” they said in a statement after their talks.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said on Sunday the United States would announce new economic sanctions aimed at companies dealing with equipment related to Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons.
Responding to Haley’s remarks, Evgeny Serebrennikov, deputy head of a Russian parliamentary defence committee, said Moscow was ready for the penalties.
“They are hard for us, but will do more damage to the USA and Europe,” RIA news agency quoted Serebrennikov as saying.
Although U.S. President Donald Trump had declared: “Mission accomplished” after the strikes, U.S. Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie at the Pentagon acknowledged that elements of the program remained and he could not guarantee that Syria would be unable to conduct a chemical attack in the future.
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, which fights alongside the Syrian army, said the U.S. military had kept its strikes limited because it knew a wider attack would bring retaliation from Damascus and its allies and inflame the region.
The Western leaders were also facing scrutiny at home over their actions.
Britain’s May will make a statement to parliament on Monday on her decision and will repeat her assertion that Assad’s forces were highly likely responsible for the attack.
The allies could not wait “to alleviate further humanitarian suffering caused by chemical weapons attacks”, according to excerpts of her speech.
But she will be questioned over why she did not seek parliamentary approval for the action, a decision that she and her ministers say was driven by the need to act quickly.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, has questioned the legal basis for Britain’s involvement.
Britain has said there are no plans for future strikes against Syria, but Johnson warned Assad that all options would be considered if chemical weapons were used against Syrians again.
In France, the conservatives, the far-left and the far-right have all criticised the strikes.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Monday will respond to their criticism in a debate in parliament on Monday afternoon. The French Constitution bars presidents from going to parliament and President Emmanuel Macron will therefore not be questioned by law-makers.
(Reporting by Leila Bassam in Damascus, Jack Stubbs and Andrey Ostroukh in Moscow, ing by Jeff Mason, Susan Cornwell and Joel Schectman in Washington, Michelle Nichols in New York, Samia Nakhoul, Tom Perry, Ellen Francis and Angus McDowall in Beirut, Kinda Makieh in Barzeh, Syria, Elizabeth Piper, Michael Holden and Guy Faulconbridge in London, Laurence Frost, Michel Rose and Ingrid Melander in Paris, Writing by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Janet Lawrence)