DAMASCUS (AFP) - International investigators on Tuesday (April 17) entered a Syrian town hit by an alleged chemical attack, after days of delay and warnings by Western powers that crucial evidence had likely been removed.
The suspected April 7 gas attack on Douma, near Damascus, reportedly left more than 40 people dead and was blamed by Western powers on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In response, the United States, France and Britain conducted unprecedented missile strikes on Syrian military installations, but Paris admitted on Tuesday they were a matter of “honour” that had solved nothing.
“Experts from the chemical weapons committee enter the town of Douma,” state news agency Sana wrote, referring to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
The inspectors arrived in Damascus on the day of the Western strikes but had not been allowed to enter Douma.
France and the United States appeared to question the purpose of such a mission.
“It is highly likely that evidence and essential elements disappear from the site, which is completely controlled by the Russian and Syrian armies,” the French foreign ministry said.
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova hit back, calling the accusation “very surprising” and saying that Russia had supported the inspection.
Several experts have said any investigation at this stage was likely to be inconclusive.
“As with any crime scene, it is crucial to get there as soon as possible,” said Olivier Lepick, a fellow at the Paris-based Foundation for Scientific Research.
“If the Russians and Syrians have nothing to hide, it’s strange that they would wait 36 to 72 hours,” he said. “It’s probably to give themselves the time to finish cleaning up.” .
FRANCE STRIPS ASSAD AWARD
In an impassioned defence to the European Parliament on Tuesday, France’s President Emmanuel Macron said Saturday’s strikes had been “for the honour of the international community”.
“These strikes don’t necessarily resolve anything but I think they were important,” Macron added.
The French leader was also set to strip Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of the prestigious Legion d’Honneur (Legion of Honour) award he was granted by former president Jacques Chirac in 2001.
The war of words continued to spiral between the Russian-backed Syrian regime and the West but a military escalation looked to have been averted.
A report on Sana that Syrian air defences had shot down missiles over Homs province overnight raised fears that further action had been taken.
But the agency later retracted the report, saying there had been “no external attack” on Syria and that a “false alarm...triggered the blowing of air defence sirens and the firing of several missiles”.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported explosions were heard near Shayrat air base, southeast of Homs city, and near Damascus where two other air bases are located.
After Saturday’s strikes, which destroyed mostly empty buildings, the trio of Western powers trying to reassert influence on the seven-year-old war have appeared to favour diplomatic action.
A series of meetings was scheduled in a bid to relaunch talks aimed at ending a war that has left more than 350,000 people dead and displaced more than half of the Syrian population.
Analysts have said however that it would take more for the West to mount a meaningful challenge to Russia’s weight as a broker.
“For a new diplomatic initiative to work, the balance on the ground must be changed,” said Nabeel Khoury, a former US diplomat who is now a fellow at the Atlantic Council think-tank.
“As it is, even with this latest bombing, the West does not have a seat at the table,” he said.
Macron has said he saw last week’s strikes as a way of engineering a split in the alliance formed by Damascus, Moscow, Tehran and Ankara in the conflict.
Russia appeared in no mood to extend a hand to the West on the Syria file however and its ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, called the diplomatic push “untimely”.
And a Turkish presidential source said after telephone talks between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani that the two sides had vowed the alliance must continue.
The latest round of diplomatic manoeuvring comes as US-backed Kurdish forces fighting the Islamic State group face a Turkish assault in northern Syria.
That has prompted many fighters to quit the battle against IS in order head for the Kurdish enclave of Afrin.
The US military, which heads a coalition against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, said Tuesday it had seen the jihadists “resurge” in some parts of Syria under government control.
Coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon said the Assad regime and its ally Russia had not always been able to hold the terrain recaptured from IS.
But Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ayman Soussan told the country’s Ikhbaria channel that the US “has no place in Syria”.
“It would be better that they leave of their own accord than we throw them out,” he said.