OPCW mission reached Douma, collected samples for analysis ~statement

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has issued a statement saying that the Fact-Finding Mission in Syria has reached one of the sites in Douma where a suspected chemical weapons attack occured on April 7 and has collected samples for analysis.

The Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) team of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) visited one of the sites in Douma, Syrian Arab Republic today to collect samples for analysis in connection with allegations of chemical weapons use on 7 April 2018. The OPCW will evaluate the situation and consider future steps including another possible visit to Douma.

The samples collected will be transported to the OPCW Laboratory in Rijswijk and then dispatched for analysis to the OPCW’s designated labs. Based on the analysis of the sample results as well other information and materials collected by the team, the FFM will compile their report for submission to the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention for their consideration.

Sources: Syria & Iraq News/Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

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US, UK and France launch ‘limited’ strikes in Syria on targets associated with chemical weapons

U.S., British and French forces struck Syria with more than 100 missiles on Saturday in the first coordinated Western strikes against the Damascus government, targeting what they called chemical weapons sites in retaliation for a poison gas attack. U.S. President Donald Trump announced the military action from the White House, saying the three allies had “marshaled their righteous power against barbarism and brutality”. As he spoke, explosions rocked Damascus.

Damascus sky lights up with surface-to-air missile fire as the U.S., Britain and France launch attack

The bombing represents a major escalation putting the West in direct confrontation with Assad’s superpower ally Russia, but is unlikely to alter the course of a multi-sided war which has killed at least half a million people in the past seven years. That in turn raises the question of where Western countries go from here, after a volley of strikes denounced by Damascus and Moscow as both reckless and pointless. By morning, the Western countries said their bombing was over for now. Syria released video of President Bashar al-Assad, whose Russian- and Iranian-backed forces have already driven his enemies from Syria’s major towns and cities, arriving at work as usual, with the caption “morning of resilience”.

British Prime Minister Theresa May described the strike as “limited and targeted”. She said she had authorized the British action after intelligence indicated Assad’s government was responsible for the attack using chemical weapons in the Damascus suburb of Douma a week ago. French President Emmanuel Macron said the strikes had been limited so far to Syria’s chemical weapons facilities.

With more than 100 missiles fired from ships and manned aircraft, the allies struck three of Syria’s main chemical weapons facilities, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph Dunford said. The targets included a Syrian center in the greater Damascus area for the research, development, production and testing of chemical and biological weaponry as well as a chemical weapons storage facility near the city of Homs. A third target, also near Homs, contained both a chemical weapons equipment storage facility and a command post. Mattis called the strikes a “one time shot”, although Trump raised the prospect of further strikes if Assad’s government again used chemical weapons. “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” the U.S. president said in a televised address.

The Syrian conflict pits a complex myriad of parties against each other, with Russia and Iran giving Assad military and political help that has largely proven decisive over the past three years in crushing any rebel threat to topple him. Fractured opposition forces have had varying levels of support from the West, Arab states and Turkey. The United States, Britain and France have all bombed the Islamic State group in Syria for years and had troops on the ground to fight them, but refrained from targeting Assad’s government apart from a volley of U.S. missiles last year. Although the Western countries have all said for seven years that Assad must leave power, they held back in the past from striking his government with no wider strategy to defeat him.

Assad’s government and allies responded outwardly with fury, although there were also clear suggestions that they considered the attack a one-off, unlikely to harm Assad. A senior official in a regional alliance that backs Damascus told Reuters the Syrian government and its allies had “absorbed” the attack. The sites that were targeted had been evacuated days ago thanks to a warning from Russia, the official said. “If it is finished, and there is no second round, it will be considered limited,” the official said. Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, said on Twitter: “Again, we are being threatened. We warned that such actions will not be left without consequences.” Syrian state media called the attack a “flagrant violation of international law.” An official in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said it would cause consequences that were against U.S. Interests. French Defence Minister Florence Parly said the Russians “were warned beforehand” to avoid inadvertant escalation.

Absorbed the strike”

At least six loud explosions were heard in Damascus and smoke was seen rising over the city, a Reuters witness said. A second witness said the Barzah district of Damascus had been hit in the strikes. Barzah is the location of a major Syrian scientific research center. Iran’s Foreign Ministry condemned the U.S.-led attacks and said Washington and its allies would bear responsibility for the consequences in the region and beyond, state media reported. State-controlled Syrian TV said Syrian air defenses shot down 13 missiles fired in the attack. The Russian defense ministry said none of the rockets launched had entered zones where Russian air defense systems are protecting military facilities in Tartus and Hmeimim.

The combined U.S., British and French assault appeared more intense than a similar strike Trump ordered almost exactly a year ago against a Syrian air base in retaliation for an earlier chemical weapons attack that Washington attributed to Assad. Mattis said the United States conducted the air strikes with conclusive evidence that chlorine gas was used in the April 7 attack in Syria. Evidence that the nerve agent sarin also was used was inconclusive, he said.

Allegations of Assad’s chlorine use are frequent in Syria’s conflict, raising questions about whether Washington had lowered the threshold for military action in Syria by deciding to strike after a chlorine attack. Syria agreed in 2013 to give up its chemical weapons. It is still permitted to have chlorine for civilian use, although its use as a weapon is banned. Mattis, who U.S. officials said had earlier warned in internal debates that too large an attack would risk confrontation with Russia, described the strikes as a one-off to dissuade Assad from “doing this again”. But a U.S. official familiar with the military planning said there could be more air strikes if the intelligence indicates Assad has not stopped making, importing, storing or using chemical weapons including chlorine. The official said this could require a more sustained U.S. air and naval presence in the region, as well as more surveillance.

US intelligence intercepted communications between Syrian military and chemical experts ahead of Khan Sheikhoun attack

The US military and intelligence community has intercepted communications featuring Syrian military and chemical experts talking about preparations for the alleged chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun on April 5, CNN reports citing an unidentified ‘senior US official’.

The intercepts were allegedly part of an immediate review of all intelligence in the hours after the attack to confirm responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in an attack in northwestern Syria, which killed at least 70 people. ‘The US did not know prior to the attack it was going to happen’, the official emphasized. The US scoops up such a large volume of communications intercepts in areas like Syria and Iraq, the material often is not processed unless there is a particular event that requires analysts to go back and look for supporting intelligence material.

So far there are no intelligence intercepts that have been found directly confirming that Russian military or intelligence officials communicated about the attack. The official said the likelihood is the Russians are more careful in their communications to avoid being intercepted.

US assesses that SAA has re-established a chemical weapons unit

The US now assesses that Syria has re-established a unit of personnel associated with chemical weapons that existed before the 2013 agreement in which the Syrian government pledged to give up its weapons inventory. And there is some indication they are getting outside help. “We know they have the expertise. And we suspect that they have help,” a US military official told reporters at a background briefing Friday. At that briefing, the official also noted, “We know the Russians have chemical expertise in-country. We cannot talk about openly any complicity between the Russians and the Syrian regime in this — in this case, but we’re carefully assessing any information that would implicate the Russians knew or assisted with the Syrian capability.” But even if there is a definitive finding of Russian complicity, it’s not clear the Pentagon or the White House would make that information public, a senior US official said. First, it would have to be ironclad proof, which could be difficult to determine. But also, the US feels right now that it has made the case that Russian support for Assad must end. For now, the official said the most specific evidence of Russian involvement remains a Russian drone that flew over the hospital that was treating people injured in the attack. The US has specific intelligence showing it was a Russian drone. While the drone operator may not have known why the aerial vehicle was flying in the area, it was a Russian-controlled asset.

Suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun kills more than 90, dozens injured

A suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun, near Idlib, has killed more than 90 people on Tuesday, while dozens were injured.

Airstrikes on the northwestern town of Khan Sheikhoun began just after daybreak, delivering an unidentified chemical agent that killed at least 90 people and filled clinics across the area with patients foaming at the mouth or struggling to breathe.

Three doctors said in interviews that the symptoms they saw were far more serious than they would expect from chlorine, which Syrian government forces have used as a chemical weapon in the past. The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons expressed “serious concern” and said it was investigating.

Images from the area showed the bodies of at least a dozen men, women and children splayed across the ground between two houses. It was not possible to independently verify the reports, but video footage showed lifeless bodies wrapped in blankets and packed on the back of a truck. The youngest were wearing diapers.

In another video, several children were seen slumped on hospital beds, apparently unresponsive to the medics and chaos around them. Syrian government warplanes in recent months have launched heavy attacks across northern Idlib province, where hundreds of thousands of civilians — many having fled other battle zones — are squeezed together among much of what remains of the armed opposition to Assad.

Syria’s Foreign Ministry denied involvement in Tuesday’s attack, saying the government was committed to its obligations under the international Chemical Weapons Convention. Syria joined the convention in 2013 after launching sarin attacks on several Damascus neighborhoods — strikes that killed hundreds of civilians and pushed the United States to the brink of military intervention.

The attack came as European diplomats gathered in Brussels for a flagship conference aimed at pledging billions of dollars for Syria’s reconstruction, six years into a civil conflict that has shattered much of the country and prompted refugees to pour out across the Middle East and Europe.

Photographs of lifeless bodies in Khan Sheikhoun were passed from phone to phone in the Brussels conference hall, attendees said, a stark reminder of the limitations of European power in a war now heavily driven by Iranian and Russian influence.

Men stand near dead bodies, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. [photo by Ammar Abdullah/Reuters]

Emergency U.N. Security Council meeting

The U.N. Security Council has scheduled an emergency meeting Wednesday morning on the suspected chemical attack in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province, which opposition activists say has killed dozens of people. U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, the current council president, made the announcement Tuesday in response to a request from Britain and France for an emergency council session. She said council members have seen reports “of the terrible chemical weapons attack in Syria.” Haley said the council will get a briefing at an open meeting at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT) on Wednesday “and we are hoping to get as much information on the Syrian attack as we can.”

White House condemns attack

The White House has condemned what it describes as a “heinous” chemical attack against civilians by the Syrian government. Spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday’s attack in the Syrian province of Idlib is “reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world.” But Spicer says the actions of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government are a consequence of the Obama administration’s “weakness and irresolution” in addressing the Syrian civil war. Spicer says that President Barack Obama said he would draw a “red line” at chemical attacks, “then did nothing.” Spicer would not say whether the White House believes Russia played a role in the attack, saying President Donald Trump has been briefed. He says Trump is “extremely alarmed” by this “intolerable act.”

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Russia and Iran bear “great moral responsibility” for deaths from an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria. Tillerson called on Russia and Iran to use their influence over Syrian President Bashar Assad to prevent future chemical weapons attacks. He said they bear moral responsibility because they have declared themselves to be the guarantors of a ceasefire they helped broker in Astana, Kazakhstan. He said in a statement that Iran and Russia shouldn’t have any illusions about Assad or his intentions. Tillerson says anyone using chemical weapons to attack his own people must be held accountable for a “fundamental disregard for human decency.” He also said the chemical weapons attack makes clear that Assad operates “with brutal, unabashed barbarism” and that Syria needs a “genuine ceasefire” and that anyone supporting armed combatants there must help ensure compliance.

A senior U.S. State Department official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity said that if a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria is what it appears to be, it is “clearly a war crime.” The official said both the United States and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are currently gathering information about the attack.

The attack comes as the U.S. has been softening its stance on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s future and leaving open the possibility the U.S. could cooperate with Assad’s government on fighting the Islamic State group. But the U.S. official says that’s “highly unlikely.” He says the U.S. isn’t currently focused on that possibility. He says the Syrian government’s behavior would have to change before the U.S. would seriously consider that step.

U.N. says can’t verify use of chemical agents in attack

The United Nations says it isn’t in a position to independently verify reports of a chemical attack in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province but Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is “deeply disturbed” at the incident. U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the U.N. chief extends “his heartfelt condolences to victims of the incident and their families.” He pointed to the OPCW, the international chemical weapons watchdog, which announced that it has started gathering information to determine if chemical weapons were used. Dujarric said Gutteres recalled the U.N. Security Council determination that the use of chemical weapons threatens international peace and security, and if confirmed “constitutes a serious violation of international law.”

Russia confirms attack was carried out by Syrian airforce planes

A Russian official confirmed on Wednesday morning that the Khan Sheikhoun attack was carried out by the Syrian Arab Airforce but wouldn’t confirm use of chemical agents.

OPCW condemns Syrian government, Daesh use of chemical weapons

The executive body of the global chemical weapons watchdog voted on Friday to condemn the use of banned toxic agents by the Syrian government and by Daesh group, a source who took part in the closed session said. Roughly two-thirds of the 41 members on the Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), endorsed a U.S.-tabled text, the source told Reuters.

The OPCW’s Executive Council, which meets behind closed doors, seldom votes on such matters, generally operating through consensus. But this text was supported by 28 members, including Germany, France, the United States and Britain. It was opposed by Russia, China, Sudan and Iran. There were nine abstentions.

Syrian Civil Defense members spray water on a rebel fighter, affected by what activists said was a gas attack in Idlib city, March 31, 2015. [photo by Abed Kontar/Reuters]
Syrian Civil Defense members spray water on a rebel fighter, affected by what activists said was a gas attack in Idlib city, March 31, 2015. [photo by Abed Kontar/Reuters]

The U.S.-Russian split over Syria was striking as it was those two countries that in 2013 took the lead in getting the Damascus government to join the OPCW and avert threatened U.S.-led military intervention in Syria’s civil war. A 13-month international inquiry by the OPCW and United Nations concluded in a series of reports that Syrian government forces, including helicopter squadrons, were responsible for the use of chlorine barrel bombs against civilians.

The OPCW-U.N. mission found that the Syrian government carried out three toxic attacks in March and April of last year, while Daesh had used sulfur mustard gas.

The findings set the stage for a U.N. Security Council showdown between the five veto-wielding powers, likely pitting Russia and China against the United States, Britain and France over how those responsible for the attacks should be held accountable. Syrian authorities deny having used chemical weapons in the conflict. Islamic State has not commented.

Sources: Reuters/Syria & Iraq News