Chemical Weapons Inspectors Collect Samples in Syria in Wake of Gas Attack

(BEIRUT) — Chemical weapons inspectors collected samples from Syria’s Douma on Saturday, two weeks after a suspected gas attack there followed by retaliatory strikes by Western powers on the Syrian government’s chemical facilities.

The site visit, confirmed by the Organization of the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, would allow the agency to proceed with an independent investigation to determine what chemicals, if any, were used in the April 7 attack that medical workers said killed more than 40 people.

Douma was the final target of the government’s sweeping campaign to seize back control of the eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus from rebels after seven years of revolt. Militants gave up the town days after the alleged attack.

The U.S., France, and Britain blamed the President Bashar Assad’s government for the attack, and struck suspected Syrian chemical weapons facilities one week later.

The Syrian government and its ally Russia denied responsibility for the attack.

OPCW inspectors arrived in Damascus just hours before the April 15 strikes but were delayed from visiting the site until Saturday, leading Western officials and Syrian activists to accuse Russia and the Syrian government of staging a cover-up.

“I won’t find any hope in my heart until the Assad regime is held accountable and eradicated from government in Syria,” said Bilal Abou Salah, a Douma media activist who left the town after the government takeover. He said he feared Russian and Syrian government personnel destroyed potential evidence in the two weeks since the alleged attack.

The OPCW said in a statement that it visited “one of the sites” in Douma to collect samples for analysis at agency-designated laboratories, adding it would “consider future steps including another possible visit to Douma.”

It said the mission will draft a report based on the findings, “as well other information and materials collected by the team.”

The OPCW mission is not mandated to apportion to blame for the attack.

A U.N. security team had scouted Douma on Tuesday to see if it was safe for weapons inspectors to visit. The team came under small arms and explosives fire, leading the agency to delay its mission.

Journalists visiting Douma the previous day, escorted by government minders, experienced no security issues.

Russian ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the delays to the OPCW team were “unacceptable,” in a statement Saturday.

Douma is just minutes away from Damascus, where the OPCW team is based.

Images emerging from Douma in the hours after the attack showed lifeless bodies collapsed in crowded rooms, some with foam around their noses and mouths.

Abou Salah entered one of the buildings affected by the alleged gas attack the following day and took footage of a yellow cylinder with a gas valve on the top floor. He said it had crashed through the roof and showed a gash in the ceiling where it purportedly came through.

His assertions could not be independently verified. But the cylinder looked like others identified by the international NGO Human Rights Watch at other locations of chlorine gas attacks attributed to the government in 2016.

Raed Saleh, the head of the Syrian Civil Defense search-and-rescue group, also known as the White Helmets, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that his organization had shared the coordinates of the graves of April 7 victims with the OPCW, so that inspectors could take biological samples.

Civil Defense workers evacuated Douma after the attack, fearing persecution by the security services of the government. The government says the group is a terrorist organization. The group, which operates in opposition areas only, maintains a strong position against Assad.

Thousands of people — rebels and civilians — left Douma on buses to north Syria in the days after the attack, believing they could not live under government authority after it retook the town. North Syria is divided between opposition, Turkish, and al-Qaida control.

The evacuations were the latest in a string of population transfers around the Syrian capital that have displaced more than 60,000 people as the government reconsolidates control after seven years of civil war.

U.N. officials and human rights groups say the evacuations amount to a forced population displacement that may be a war crime.

On Saturday, rebels began evacuating three towns in the eastern Qalamoun region in the Damascus countryside, state TV reported.

State-run Al-Ikhbariya TV said 35 buses left the towns of Ruhaiba, Jayroud, and al-Nasriya carrying hundreds of rebels and their families to opposition territory in north Syria.

The station said there could be 3,200 rebels leaving three towns on Saturday. It said the evacuations would continue for three days.

Syrian government forces will take over the towns once the departures are complete.


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Trump Orders Strikes on Syria Over Chemical Weapons

Western military forces carried out air raids across western Syria in the predawn hours Saturday, obliterating Syrian government targets related to President Bashar Assad’s deadly chemical weapons program.

The operation, which was fairly limited in its scope, opens a perilous new chapter in the Syrian civil war and risks dragging the U.S. further into the blood-soaked conflict, now in its eighth year.

The military strikes carried out by warplanes and warships belonging to the U.S., France, and Britain also escalated diplomatic tensions with Russia and Iran, Assad’s largest allies, which later lashed out against what they deemed as unnecessary military aggression.

President Donald Trump, speaking from the White House in a nationally televised address, announced he ordered “precision strikes” with U.S. allies as retaliation for the apparent April 7 chemical attack on the western Syrian town of Douma, in which dozens of civilians were killed.

“This massacre was a significant escalation in a pattern of chemical weapons use by that very terrible regime,” he said. “The evil and despicable attack left mothers and fathers, infants and children thrashing in pain and gasping for air. These are not actions of a man; they are crimes of a monster instead.”

The Administration, however, did not present public evidence on the type of chemicals used or whether it involved the use of a powerful nerve gas – a violation of Trump’s “red-line” announced last year. Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon that the U.S. was confident that chlorine was used, but couldn’t “rule-out” that the deadly nerve agent sarin was launched.

It remains unclear why the U.S. would unleash military strikes from the air and by sea if it did not have irrefutable proof that nerve agent was used. Assad has launched chlorine attacks against civilians dozens of times without U.S. reprisal, even though chemical weapons have been internationally banned after widespread use in World War I.

This time, volleys of Tomahawk cruise missiles roared in from U.S. warships in the Mediterranean Sea while fighter jets launched airstrikes on Syrian military control centers and chemical weapons facilities. Syrian residents posted video and images of explosions lighting the night sky. No U.S., British, or French casualties were reported.

Several military sites around Damascus and Homs that were used to manufacture chemical weapons. Mattis described a limited, one-time strike designed to deter Assad from using chemical weapons again. But an hour earlier, Trump laid out a longer-term engagement, saying the U.S. would “sustain this response” unless the chemical attacks came to an end.

“The purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread, and use of chemical weapons. Establishing this deterrent is a vital national security interest of the United States,” Trump said. “The combined American, British, and French response to these atrocities will integrate all instruments of our national power — military, economic, and diplomatic.”

The airstrikes sought to hobble Assad’s capabilities while avoiding striking Russian and Iranian troops and equipment that are entwined the Syrian military in many parts of the country. Trump called out Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran, for “supporting, equipping, and financing” Assad’s forces. The president, who has said repeatedly he would like to improve relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, had sharp words the support for the Syrian government.

“What kind of nation wants to be associated with a mass murderer of men, women and children?” he said, adding that Russia must decide if it will “continue down this dark path,” or join “civilized nations” as force for peace.

Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty ImagesPresident Trump addresses the nation on the situation in Syria at the White House on April 13, 2018.

The operation marked the second time the U.S. struck Assad’s military. Trump ordered an attack last April against the Shayrat air base after a warplane at the base dropped bombs on another town allegedly containing the nerve agent sarin. U.S. warships launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the base. “Clearly, the Assad regime did not get the message last year,” Mattis said. “This time, our allies and we have struck harder. Together, we have sent a clear message to Assad, and his murderous lieutenants, that they should not perpetrate another chemical weapons attack for which they will be held accountable.”

Mattis, who spoke alongside Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and representatives of the French and British military, said that more than 100 weapons were launched against three main targets. He did not specify how the targets were hit, but stressed that the operation did not pose danger to surrounding civilians.

The plan came together after several meetings of the National Security Council following images shared on social media of the Douma attack that showed lifeless bodies of children, eyes open, sprawled on the ground with foam bubbling from their mouths as they gasped for air.

It is an abrupt reversal for Trump. Just last week, the president indicated he wanted to pull out American forces fighting ISIS from Syria. The country has been engulfed in fighting since 2011, when civil unrest tied to the Arab Spring movement escalated into a full-blown rebellion against Assad.

He responded with brutal force, and with the assistance of allies Russia and Iran. Approximately 350,000 people have been killed in the fighting, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.


With Brian Bennett in Washington