Chemical watchdog meets as experts begin Syria probe
DAMASCUS - The global chemical arms watchdog held emergency talks Monday in The Hague on an alleged Syrian regime attack on Douma, where a team of its experts was beginning its field work.
Ambassadors convened at the OPCW's headquarters two days after an unprecedented wave of punitive missile strikes launched by Western powers before a fact-finding team could investigate.
Talks were held behind closed doors at the Netherlands seat of the Nobel Peace prize-winning Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, two days after its mission arrived in Damascus.
The team had been expected to begin their field work on Sunday but they met with officials at their Damascus hotel instead and a strict media blackout was imposed on their schedule.
In the Syrian capital, thousands of people gathered on the main Umayyad square to express their support for President Bashar al-Assad in the aftermath of the missile strikes.
The missiles that US, French and British warships fired on suspected chemical facilities Saturday were the biggest Western attack against the regime in the seven-year war.
The targeted sites were largely empty but US President Donald Trump hailed a "perfectly executed" operation.
Trump's "Mission Accomplished" tweet earned him parallels with George W. Bush's fatefully premature victory speech days after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
- 'Staged drama' -
The limited scope of the strikes and the fact that Damascus had time to remove key assets thanks to prior warning given by the West to Syria regime ally Russia, also drew sceptical comments from analysts.
The trio of Western powers that carried out the strikes warned they would repeat the operation if Damascus used chemical weapons again, while Russian President Vladimir Putin warned any fresh strikes would "provoke chaos".
Yet the Pentagon has said it planned no further strikes and the West already appeared to be shifting its focus to renewed diplomatic action, with a new resolution to be debated at the UN Security Council on Monday.
"The bottom line for me is that this latest strike changed nothing," said Nabeel Khoury, a former US diplomat and currently a fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank.
"In my opinion, it was a staged drama, orchestrated by Trump and Putin, for each to save face," he said.
Many commentators have argued that Assad's regime only came out stronger because the strikes revealed the West's inability or unwillingness to remove him from power.
The April 7 strike on Douma, in which most experts say chlorine as well as an agent such as sarin were used, killed at least 40 people, according to local medics.
Holdout fighters from the Islamist group Jaish al-Islam subsequently surrendered their heavy weapons and left, explaining that the chemical attack was what forced them to accept a Russian-brokered transfer deal.
- No interference -
Regime forces have since entered Douma and declared the entire Eastern Ghouta region around it fully retaken, ending a five-year siege and reclaiming an opposition bastion on the edge of the capital.
The OPCW fact-finding team was expected to enter Douma, under regime security escort, to take samples and collect various types of evidence connected to the attack.
Damascus and Moscow have vehemently denied that any chemical weapons were used and alleged instead that grim videos showing civilians foaming at the mouth after the attack were staged.
Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mokdad said several coordination meetings were held with the OPCW team but he did not provide any further details as their schedule.
"Syria reiterated its full readiness to coordinate and to facilitate the delegation's work," he was quoted as saying by the official state agency SANA.
Russia also promised Monday, as the meeting in The Hague got under way, that it would not obstruct the fact-finding mission.
"Russia confirms its commitment to ensure safe (sic) and security of the mission and will not interfere in its work," the Russian embassy in The Hague said in a tweet.
With all key players having de facto preempted its findings, the chemical arm watchdog faced a difficult task.
Its team on the ground also faced the risk of arriving too late to a site where much of the evidence may have long been removed or tampered with.