Chemical inspectors launch probe in Syria after Western strikes

Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have launched their investigation into an alleged chemical attack near Damascus on April 7.

The global chemical watchdog on Monday opened emergency talks on the suspected poison gas attack in the Syrian town of Douma, diplomatic sources told the reporters.

More than 390 allegations of chemical weapon use in Syria have been recorded by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) since 2014, the British envoy to the group said Monday.

"The Syrian regime has an abhorrent record of using chemical weapons against its own people," said Peter Wilson, adding that the use of chemical weapons "has become an all-too-regular weapon of war in the Syrian conflict."

The statement came during a OPCW Executive Council Meeting following joint weekend airstrikes by the U.S., U.K., and France on reported Assad regime chemical weapons facilities in Syria.

The strikes followed the Assad regime allegedly carrying out a chemical attack in Douma, Syria which killed 78 civilians and injured hundreds of others.

Wilson said the U.K. is clear about who is responsible for the atrocity.

"A significant body of information, including intelligence, indicates the Syrian regime is responsible for this latest attack," he said.

"Open-source accounts allege a barrel bomb was used to deliver the chemicals, and a regime helicopter was seen above Douma on the evening of 7 April," he added.

Wilson said "reliable intelligence indicates that Syrian military officials coordinated what appears to be the use of chlorine in Douma on 7 April."

"No other group could have carried out this attack."

He underlined that the world has seen the "harrowing images of men, women and children lying dead with foam in their mouths" and "first-hand accounts from NGOs and aid workers have detailed burns to the eyes, suffocation and skin discoloration, with a chlorine-like odor surrounding the victims."

"The World Health Organization has reported that 500 patients, seen by its partners in Syria, had symptoms consistent with chemical weapons exposure," he added.

Pointing to some of the evidence known to the OPCW council, Wilson said: "The OPCW has recorded more than 390 allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria since the fact-finding mission was established in 2014."

He said: "The OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism has found Syria responsible for using chemical weapons on four occasions between 2014-2017, including chlorine and sarin.

"Syria has not provided the OPCW with a complete account of its chemical weapons program. The director general reported just last month that Syria had not provided credible evidence to account for 22 serious issues. This includes quantities of agent Syria possessed, the type of agent, and the munitions used for delivery.

"Based on the persistent pattern of behavior, and the cumulative analysis of specific incidents, we assess it as highly likely that the Syrian regime has continued to use chemical weapons since the attack on Khan Sheikhoun a year ago," Wilson added.

The British envoy also pointed out that "Russia has vetoed six chemical weapons-related resolutions since the start of 2017, including a veto just last week of a draft resolution that would have established an independent investigation into the attack on Douma."

Wilson also slammed Russian claims that the attack on Douma was staged or faked and even that the U.K. was behind the attack. "That is ludicrous," he said.

"This council heard similar false claims from Russia and from Syria last year. They questioned the credibility of the evidence of a chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun."

"Russia's activity have made further UN-sponsored action untenable," he said.

Wilson stressed that "Syria's use of chemical weapons, which has exacerbated the human suffering in Syria, is a serious crime of international concern."

"It is a breach of the customary international law prohibition on the use of chemical weapons and amounts to a war crime and a crime against humanity," he said.

Wilson said hitting Syrian regime's chemical weapons facilities "will significantly degrade the Syrian regime's ability to research, develop and deploy chemical weapons."

He added: "The lack of accountability for the Khan Sheikhoun sarin attack can only have reassured the Syrian regime that the international community was not serious in its stated commitment to uphold the norm against chemical weapons use, and to hold perpetrators to account."

"This is shameful."

"Failure to act to hold perpetrators to account will only risk further barbaric use of chemical weapons, in Syria and beyond," Wilson said.

What exactly is the fact-finding team's mission, what will it be looking for, how independently will it be able to perform its duties and how significant will its findings be?

Here are some facts on the OPCW's Syria mission:

The organisation is based in The Hague, in the Netherlands. It is the implementing body of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which entered into force in 1997 and aims to eradicate chemical weapons worldwide.

The OPCW's fact-finding mission (FFM) was set up in 2014 "to establish facts surrounding allegations of the use of toxic chemicals, reportedly chlorine, for hostile purposes in the Syrian Arab Republic."

The OPCW received the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to eliminate chemical weapons in 2013 as it pressed a campaign that resulted the following year in the destruction of Syria's declared stockpiles.

The FFM arrived in Damascus on Saturday to investigate allegations chemical weapons were used in a strike on the town of Douma, just east of Damascus, on April 7.

Local medics said more than 40 people died as a result of the alleged chemical weapons attack, which most experts so far have speculated involved chlorine and another agent such as sarin.

Western powers accused the Syrian regime of conducting the strike and responded on April 14 with an unprecedented wave of missile strikes.

The OPCW team has so far held meetings with Syrian officials but is not believed to have started field work in Douma, where holdout rebels surrendered their weapons and agreed to leave after the alleged attack.

Its mission, which was requested by the Syrian government, is to determine whether chemical weapons were used but not who the perpetrator was.

The team "may take chemical, environmental and biomedical samples for analysis," the OPCW says. "Team members may also interview victims, eyewitnesses and medical personnel and participate in autopsies."

"There is no silver bullet -- in most cases, no single piece of evidence will be sufficient," said Ralf Trapp, a consultant and member of a previous FFM mission.

"UN as well as OPCW investigation teams rely on the advice and support of the UN Department of Safety and Security and their contacts with local actors," Trapp explained.

During their investigative work, the FFM teams are escorted by Syrian government officials.

Douma was held by rebel groups for six years and has been extensively damaged by the assault the regime launched on February 18. The army said mine clearing operations were currently under way.

Russia and the regime have both denied chemical weapons were used. Their forces have controlled the area where the attack occurred for days.

"Investigators will look for evidence that shows whether the incident site has been tampered with ," Trapp said, adding that they will also have to find ways of authenticating evidence that it presented to by third parties.

Most key players in the seven-year-old conflict have preempted the fact-finding team's results, including the Western powers that conducted Saturday's punitive strikes on the grounds that they already had proof.

Russia says that the Western claims were fabricated to justify strikes and that its forces have already investigated the site and found nothing.

Critics of the Western missile strikes have argued that military action could have waited for the OPCW's findings.

The team is expected to send a situation report shortly after beginning its field work but a final report typically takes weeks.

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