Chlorine likely used in February attack in Idlib, Syria-weapons agency

A child is treated in a hospital in Douma, eastern Ghouta in Syria, after what a Syria medical relief group claims was a suspected chemical attack April, 7, 2018. Pcture taken April 7, 2018. White Helmets/Handout via REUTERS

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Banned chlorine munitions were likely dropped on a Syrian neighborhood in February, an international body on chemical weapons said on Wednesday, after laboratory tests confirmed the presence of the toxic chemical.

In its latest report on the systematic use of banned munitions in Syria’s civil war, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) did not say which party was behind the attack on Saraqib, which lies in rebel-held territory in the province of Idlib.

But witnesses told OPCW investigators that the munitions were dropped in barrel bombs from a helicopter, a report released by the OPCW showed. Only Syrian government forces are known to have helicopters.

The report by the OPCW’s fact finding mission for Syria “determined that chlorine was released from cylinders by mechanical impact in the Al Talil neighborhood of Saraqib.”

About 11 people were treated after the attack on Feb. 4. for mild and moderate symptoms of toxic chemical exposure, including breathing difficulties, vomiting and unconsciousness, the report said.

Samples taken from the soil, canisters and impact sites tested positive for other chemicals, bearing the “markers of the Syrian regime,” said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a biological and chemical weapons expert working in Syria.

The samples tested positive for precursors needed to make the nerve agent sarin, he said.

“These chemicals were detected in previous sarin attacks, Khan Sheikhoun, East Ghouta and no doubt Douma,” Bretton-Gordon said.

The OPCW is also investigating a suspected chemical attack on April 7 in the Douma enclave near Damascus, which prompted missile strikes by the United States, France and Britain. Those findings are expected by the end of the month.

The conclusions on the Saraqib attack are based on the presence of two cylinders, which were determined as previously containing chlorine, witness testimony and environmental samples confirming “the unusual presence of chlorine”, it said.

A joint OPCW-U.N. mechanism for Syria has previously concluded the Syrian government has used both sarin nerve agent and chlorine, killing and injuring hundreds of civilians. Rebels were found to have used sulfur mustard once on a small scale.

Reuters reported in January that tests found “markers” in samples taken at three attack sites between 2013 and 2017 from chemicals from the Syrian government stockpile.

The lab tests linked Ghouta and two other nerve agent attack sites, in the towns of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib governorate on April 4, 2017 and Khan al-Assal, Aleppo, in March 2013, to the stockpile handed over to the agency for destruction in 2014.

The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has denied using chemical weapons and instead has blamed rebels for staging attacks to falsely implicate his forces in the atrocities.

The mechanism was disbanded in November following a Russian veto at the U.N. Security Council, a move which ratcheted up tension between Moscow and Western powers over chemical weapons use in Syria.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch, Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, William Maclean)

Chemical weapons watchdog: inspectors have samples from Douma

FILE PHOTO: The United Nation vehicle carrying the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inspectors is seen in Damascus, Syria April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – A team of inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) visited a site in Douma, Syria on Saturday to collect samples as it tries to determine whether such weapons were used there on April 7, the agency said.

In a statement, the OPCW said it would now evaluate and consider whether the team needs to make a second visit to Douma.

Samples will be transported back to the Netherlands and onward to the organization’s network of designated labs for analysis.

Based on the analysis of the sample results as well other information and materials collected by the team, the mission would compile a report and submit it to the organization’s member states, the statement said.

The OPCW has been investigating use of toxic chemicals in Syria’s civil war since 2014. Inspectors had been trying to reach Douma for several days but were delayed after an advance security detail was fired upon on April 17.

The OPCW team will attempt to determine whether chemical weapons were used and if so, which. It is not mandated to conclude which side in the conflict used them.

(Reporting by Toby Sterling; editing by Andrew Roche)

Insurgents south of Syrian capital surrender, says state TV

Smoke rises from Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus, Syria April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

By Angus McDowall

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Insurgents in the last area outside Syrian government control near Damascus agreed on Friday to withdraw, but the army’s bombardment continued pending a full surrender deal, state media and a war monitor reported.

The development heralds another advance for President Bashar al-Assad’s push to retake remaining enclaves and strengthen his position around the capital after retaking eastern Ghouta this month.

Large puffs of smoke could be seen on state television rising from a row of buildings as an artillery salvo struck home before one collapsed in a cloud of dust, accompanied by the rattle of automatic fire and the sound of distant blasts.

Assad is in his strongest position since early in the seven-year war despite U.S., British and French air strikes on April 14 – their first coordinated action in the war.

The attacks were to punish Assad for a suspected gas attack they say killed scores of people during an advance that captured Douma – the rebels’ last redoubt in eastern Ghouta.

But the single volley of raids, hitting three targets far from any frontline, had no effect on the wider war which has killed 500,000 people and made more than half of Syrians homeless.

International inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) who arrived in Damascus nearly a week ago were still waiting early on Friday to visit the site of the suspected poison gas attack.

However, a Reuters witness saw a vehicle with licence plates used by international organisations and escorted by Russian military police near the site in Douma on Friday, three days after U.N. security personnel doing reconnaissance for the OPCW inspectors was forced to turn back because of gunfire.

Syria and its ally Russia deny using chemical weapons in the assault on Douma. The Western countries say the Syrian government, which now controls the town, is keeping the inspectors out and may be tampering with evidence, both accusations Damascus and Moscow deny.

Physicians for Human Rights, a U.S.-based rights group, voiced “grave concern” over reports that Douma hospital staff had faced “extreme intimidation” after the area came back under government control to stop them talking about the incident.

A man rides on a motorbike along a street at the city of Douma in Damascus, Syria, April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

A man rides on a motorbike along a street at the city of Douma in Damascus, Syria, April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

DISPLACEMENT

The surrender of the enclave in south Damascus, which includes the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, Hajar al-Aswad district and neighbouring areas, will bring the entire area around the capital back under Assad’s control.

Under the deal, Islamic State fighters, who control part of the enclave, will leave for territory the group controls in eastern Syria, while other factions leave for opposition territory in the north, state media reported.

Sporadic shelling persisted, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said. State television said the military campaign was continuing because insurgents had not agreed to all details of the surrender. The Observatory said it was because some of the Islamic State fighters still rejected the deal.

Yarmouk was the biggest camp for Palestinian refugees in Syria before the war. Although most residents have fled, up to 12,000 remain there and in the neighbouring areas under jihadist or rebel control, said the U.N. agency that helps them.

“There are reports that large numbers of people have been displaced from Yarmouk Camp to the neighbouring area of Yalda. There are also reports of civilian casualties,” said Christopher Gunness, the spokesman for the U.N. agency responsible for Palestinian camps.

Jihadist shelling of an adjoining neighbourhood injured five people, Damascus police were cited as saying early on Friday by state television.

Rebels on Thursday began pulling out of Dumayr, an enclave northeast of Damascus, under a surrender deal with the government. Insurgents in another enclave nearby – Eastern Qalamoun – said they had also agreed to withdraw.

Thousands of civilians, including the fighters’ families, are expected to leave with them for northern Syria before the areas come back under Assad’s rule under deals similar to others carried out across the country as government forces advance.

The United Nations has voiced concern that such “evacuations” involve the displacement of civilians under threat of reprisals or forced conscription. The government denies that.

“The U.N. expects further displacements in the near future to northern Syria from other locations controlled by non-state armed groups where negotiations reportedly are happening,” the world body said in a humanitarian note.

Conditions in the opposition-held pocket of northern Syria where the displaced will go are poor.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall, additional reporting by Kinda Makieh in Douma, Editing by Peter Graff, Janet Lawrence, William Maclean)

Syria chemical weapons visit postponed after gunfire: sources

The United Nation vehicle carrying the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inspectors is seen in Damascus, Syria April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

By Anthony Deutsch

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – The arrival of international chemical weapons inspectors at the location of a suspected poison gas attack in the Syrian town of Douma has been delayed after gunfire at the site during a visit by a U.N. security team on Tuesday, sources told Reuters.

The U.N. security team entered Douma to assess the situation ahead of the planned visit by inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said the sources, who had been briefed on the team’s deployment.

The OPCW inspectors are in Syria to investigate an April 7 incident in which Western countries and rescue workers say scores of civilians were gassed to death by government forces, which Damascus denies.

The United States, Britain and France fired missiles at three Syrian targets on Saturday to punish President Bashar al-Assad for the suspected chemical attack, the first coordinated Western action against Assad in seven years of war.

The U.S.-led intervention has threatened to escalate confrontation between the West and Assad’s backer Russia, although it has had no impact on the fighting on the ground, in which pro-government forces have pressed on with a campaign to crush the rebellion.

Assad is now in his strongest position since the early months of a civil war that has killed more than 500,000 people and driven more than half of Syrians from their homes.

DELAY CAUSES DISPUTE

A delay in the arrival of the inspectors at the Douma site has become a source of diplomatic dispute, because Western countries accuse Damascus and Moscow of hindering the mission. The United States and France have both said they believe the delay could be used to destroy evidence of the poison attack.

Russia and Syria deny using poison gas, hindering the investigation or tampering with evidence.

One source told Reuters the advance team had “encountered a security issue” during the visit to Douma, including gunfire which led to the delay. The source could not provide additional details. Another said the advance team had left after being met by protesters who demanded aid and hearing gunfire.

An official close to the Syrian government said the U.N. security team had been met by protesters demonstrating against the U.S.-led strikes, but did not mention any shooting. “It was a message from the people,” said the official. The mission “will continue its work”, the official said.

Douma was the last town to hold out in the besieged eastern Ghouta enclave, the last big rebel bastion near the capital Damascus, which was captured by a government advance over the past two months. The last rebels abandoned the town on Saturday, hours after the U.S.-led missile strikes, leaving government forces in control of the site of the suspected chemical attack.

Syria’s U.N. ambassador said on Tuesday the fact-finding mission would begin its work in Douma on Wednesday if the U.N. security team deemed the situation there safe.

A U.N. source said the OPCW inspectors would probably not be going to Douma on Wednesday. The U.N. source did not give details of the shooting incident. The source did not say when the inspectors might visit the site, or whether a planned visit to Douma on Wednesday had been postponed.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch in The Hague, Laila Bassam, Tom Perry and Ellen Francis in Beirut; Writing by Ellen Francis/Tom Perry in Beirut; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Raissa Kasolowsky and Peter Graff)

Israel hints it could hit Iran’s ‘air force’ in Syria

FILE PHOTO - An Israeli soldier walks near a military post close to the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel February 10, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad/File Photo

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel released details on Tuesday about what it described as an Iranian “air force” deployed in neighboring Syria, including civilian planes suspected of transferring arms, a signal that these could be attacked should tensions with Tehran escalate.

Iran, along with Damascus and its big-power backer Russia, blamed Israel for an April 9 air strike on a Syrian air base, T-4, that killed seven Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) members. Iranian officials have promised unspecified reprisals.

Israeli media ran satellite images and a map of five Syrian air bases allegedly used to field Iranian drones or cargo aircraft, as well as the names of three senior IRGC officers suspected of commanding related projects, such as missile units.

The information came from the Israeli military, according to a wide range of television and radio stations and news websites. Israel’s military spokesman declined to comment.

However, an Israeli security official seemed to acknowledge the leak was sanctioned, telling Reuters that it provided details about “the IRGC air force (which) the Israeli defense establishment sees as the entity that will try to attack Israel, based on Iranian threats to respond to the strike on T-4.”

The official, who requested anonymity, would not elaborate.

Israel’s Army Radio reported that, given tensions with Iran over Syria, the Israeli air force canceled plans to send F-15 fighter jets to take part in the U.S.-hosted exercise Red Flag, which begins on April 30.

“EXPOSED”

Roni Daniel, military editor for Israeli TV station Mako, said the disclosure was a signal to Iran that its deployments in Syria “are totally exposed to us, and if you take action against us to avenge (the T-4 strike) these targets will be very severely harmed”.

According to Daniel, Israel was bracing for a possible Iranian missile salvo or armed drone assault from Syria.

There was no immediate response from the IRGC or Syria.

The Iranian death toll in T-4 was unusually high. “It was the first time we attacked live Iranian targets – both facilities and people,” the New York Times on Sunday quoted an Israeli military source as saying.

Iran, Israel’s arch-foe, has cast its military personnel in Syria as reinforcements helping President Bashar al-Assad battle a seven-year-old insurgency. The Iranians have also described their cargo flights to Syria as carrying humanitarian aid only.

An Israeli-Iranian showdown over Syria has loomed since Feb. 10, when Israel said an armed drone launched from T-4 penetrated its air space. Israel blew up the drone and carried out a raid on Syrian air defenses in which one of its F-16 jets was downed.

“Israel is headed for escalation,” Yaacov Amidror, former national security adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told Tel Aviv radio station 103 FM. “There could be a very big belligerent incident with Iran and Hezbollah.”

While not claiming responsibility for the T-4 strike, Israel has restated a policy of preventing Iran setting up a Syrian garrison. Scores of previous such raids went unanswered but Israel worries that changing conditions may now embolden Iran.

Russia, which long turned a blind eye to Israeli actions in Syria while serving as a brake on retaliation by Iran or its Lebanese Hezbollah guerrilla allies, is now at loggerheads with Western powers over accusations, denied by Syria’s government, that it has used chemical weaponry in fighting.

(Additional reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London; writing by Dan Williams; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Chemical weapons experts enter site of attack in Syrian town

Members of Syrian police sit at a damaged building at the city of Douma, Damascus, Syria April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Ali Hashish

By Angus McDowall

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Global chemical weapons inspectors finally reached the Syrian town on Tuesday where a suspected poison gas attack took place, days after the United States, Britain and France launched missile strikes to punish Damascus for it.

Syrian state television reported that the experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had entered Douma, where Western countries say scores of civilians sheltering from bombs were gassed to death on April 7.

France said it was very likely that evidence of the poison gas attack was disappearing before the inspectors could reach the site. Syria and its ally Russia deny that any chemical attack took place.

Douma is now in the hands of government forces after the last rebels withdrew just hours after U.S., French and British forces fired more than 100 missiles to hit three suspected chemical weapons development or storage sites.

Saturday’s air strikes were the first coordinated Western strikes against Assad’s government in a seven-year war that has killed more than 500,000 people and drawn in global powers and neighbouring states.

The intervention threatened to escalate confrontation between the West and Russia but has had no significant impact on the ground, where President Bashar al-Assad is now in his strongest position since the war’s early days and shows no sign of slowing down his campaign to crush the rebellion.

YARMOUK

The Syrian army began preparatory shelling on Tuesday for an assault on the last area outside its control near Damascus, a commander in the pro-government alliance said.

Recovering the Yarmouk camp and neighbouring areas south of the city would give Assad complete control over Syria’s capital. Yarmouk, Syria’s biggest camp for Palestinian refugees, has been under the control of Islamic State fighters for years. Although most residents have fled, the United Nations says several thousand remain.

Assad has benefited from Russian air power since 2015 to regain large swathes of Syria. The suspected poison gas attack creates a conundrum for Western powers, who are determined to punish Assad for using chemical weapons but have no strategy for the sort of sustained intervention that might damage him.

Damascus and Moscow have broadcast statements from hospital workers in Douma – which medical aid groups operating in rebel areas have dismissed as propaganda – saying that no chemical attack took place.

Syrian state media reported that missiles had again targeted an airbase overnight, but the commander in the regional military alliance backing the government, speaking on condition of anonymity, later told Reuters it was a false alarm.

The commander said the new offensive would target Islamic State and Nusra Front militants in Yarmouk camp and al-Hajar al-Aswad district. Rebels in the adjoining Beit Sahm area had agreed to withdraw on buses, he said.

EASTERN GHOUTA

A government media tour on Monday of Douma, the biggest town in the former rebel enclave of eastern Ghouta just outside Damascus, revealed severe destruction and the plight of residents who had survived years of siege.

The assault on eastern Ghouta began in February and ended in government victory on Saturday when rebels withdrew from the town. All the rebel groups controlling areas of eastern Ghouta eventually agreed surrender deals that involved withdrawal to opposition-held areas of northwestern Syria.

After the recapture of eastern Ghouta, Assad still has several smaller pockets of ground to recover from rebels, as well as two major areas they hold in the northwest and southwest.

Besides the pocket south of Damascus, rebels still hold besieged enclaves in the town of Dumayr northeast of Damascus, in the Eastern Qalamoun mountains nearby, and around Rastan north of Homs.

The pro-government commander said the army had prepared for military action in the Eastern Qalamoun, but that Russia was working on securing the rebels’ withdrawal without a battle. State television said on Tuesday that rebels in Dumayr had also agreed to withdraw.

In Idlib in northwest Syria, the largest area still held by rebels, a government assault could bring Damascus into confrontation with Turkey, which has set up a string of military observation posts in the area.

Ali Akbar Velayati, a top Iranian official, said during a visit to Damascus last week that he hoped the army would soon regain Idlib and areas of eastern Syria now held by an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias backed by Washington.

 

(Reporting by Laila Bassam, additional reporting by Dahlia Nehme; Editing by Kevin Liffey; Writing by Angus McDowall and Peter Graff; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Syria attack triggered Western action, but on the ground Assad gained

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – After Syrian forces bombed the town of Douma earlier this month in an attack the United States says involved chlorine gas, Washington and its allies launched missile strikes as punishment.

The retribution has changed little in the course of the seven-year civil war, but the alleged poison gas attack did.

Rebels had held the stronghold of Douma, near the capital Damascus, for years despite repeated offensives. Within hours of the April 7 attack they were in retreat.

Under pressure from beleaguered residents and facing Russian threats of further such attacks, the rebel group Jaish al-Islam finally agreed to surrender Douma and leave for the Turkish border, Mohammad Alloush, a top official in the movement, said.

By the time the West struck back just under a week later, armed resistance in the areas around the Syrian government’s seat of power had all but collapsed, further strengthening the hand of President Bashar al-Assad.

Syria and Russia condemned the Western military intervention early on Saturday, and deny the use of chemical weapons in Douma.

Moscow branded it a lie concocted with the help of Britain, while the British government said a significant body of information, including intelligence, indicated the Syrian government was responsible.

Whatever happened on that day, it prompted a dramatic shift on the ground.

Medical relief groups said dozens of civilians were killed, and one video circulated by activists showed the bodies of around a dozen men, women and children lifeless on the floor, some of them with foam at the mouth.

A couple of hours later, according to Alloush, mediators from the rebel group held talks with a team led by a senior officer from the Russian defence ministry.

“The threat came: ‘You saw what happened in Douma. Now you can only sign, or there will be more strikes and nobody left in the town’,” Alloush, who is based in Istanbul, told Reuters.

He blamed Russia for helping the Syrian army carry out the attack in order to end the rebellion.

“They bombed and bombed and we weren’t defeated by conventional weapons so they found the only way was to use chemical (weapons).”

The Russian defence ministry did not respond to detailed questions about Alloush’s comments sent by Reuters.

After talking with the Russians, Jaish al-Islam members then met a civilian council representing Douma residents: tens of thousands have stayed on despite the fighting that has reduced much of the town to rubble.

The residents’ message to the rebels was clear: “They said ‘we can no longer hold on. If you don’t leave, we are going over to the regime’,” said Alloush. “Civilian morale collapsed with the scenes of death.”

A council member who declined to be named told Reuters that civilians said they could no longer resist, given the threat of further attacks.

Dozens of people had been killed under intense bombardment the day before poison gas was allegedly deployed, but there was a difference, Alloush said.

“Chemical weapons create more terror.”

 

ESCALATING TENSIONS

Syria’s civil war has been going Assad’s way since Russia intervened on his side in 2015.

After the key capture of eastern Aleppo in late 2016, Assad and his allies have taken back one area after another from rebels who face Russian air power and lack sufficient aid from foreign states that back them only half-heartedly.

Significant areas of Syria still remain beyond the president’s grasp, including nearly all of the north, much of the east, and a chunk of the southwest, areas where foreign interests will complicate further gains.

But in the region around the capital he has made big gains. Eastern Ghouta fell last month, leaving Douma as the last major rebel bastion.

Its fall – insurgent fighters have been bussed towards the Turkish border over the past few days – marks another milestone.

The Ghouta offensive was directed from the start by Russia and waged on the ground by elite Syrian forces, according to a commander in the regional military alliance that backs Assad.

When the assault got underway in February, the besieged area was pounded from the ground and air before troops thrust in. So far, the Ghouta offensive has killed more than 1,700 civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Hamstrung by rivalries and weakened by the “scorched earth” bombardment, the handful of eastern Ghouta rebel groups were steadily defeated and forced to accept safe passage to opposition-held territory at the Turkish border.

Jaish al-Islam, however, believed it could avoid the same fate even as Syrian troops encircled Douma, saying it wanted to protect the town and its people from forced displacement imposed by the Assad government.

CIVILIANS FLEE

Once the biggest rebel group in eastern Ghouta, Jaish al-Islam claimed to have fortified Douma extensively, meaning government forces could face a costly battle to capture it.

The group also said it could have held out thanks to weapons factories it built up during the war and enough supplies to feed people for a year.

Hundreds of thousands of residents had already fled the area in the years and months preceding April 7, but tens of thousands stayed.

In negotiations with Russian military personnel, Jaish al-Islam pressed for a deal that would let in Russian military police, keep out the Syrian military and allow its fighters to stay as a local security force.

Alloush said the talks appeared to be going well two days before the suspected chemical attack, with the Russians having promised to study fresh proposals.

But, he said, Russia’s response the following day was a threat: face chemical attacks or leave to northern Syria.

That afternoon the most ferocious bombardment yet was unleashed on Douma. Thick clouds of dark smoke rose from the town in a live state TV broadcast.

The government accused Jaish al-Islam of shelling residential areas of Damascus and reneging on promises to release abducted soldiers and civilians held by the group.

The rebels denied opening fire.

“We were fighting the Russians. We were not fighting the regime,” Alloush said.

“THE RUSSIANS GOT ANGRY”

The pro-Assad commander who declined to be named said the army had been mobilized on April 6 in preparation for a possible assault, after Jaish al-Islam reneged on an agreement to leave the town and introduced unacceptable demands.

These included its legalization as a political party, and a requirement that the Syrian army stay out of Douma. The Russians were furious, according to the pro-Assad commander.

“The Russians got very angry with them … and asked them ‘what are these impossible conditions’?”

The Syrian government’s position was clear, the commander said. The rebels must go “to Jarablus”, a town at the Turkish border.

Sources in the rebel group, however, said that talks with the Russians had been about the terms of them staying in Douma, not about conditions of a withdrawal.

The ensuing onslaught smashed Jaish al-Islam’s defensive lines, according to both Alloush and the pro-Assad commander.

As the air strikes continued, Alloush reiterated Jaish al-Islam’s demand that it be allowed to stay in Douma to protect its people.

The next evening, more than 500 people, mostly women and children, began arriving at medical centers in Douma showing symptoms consistent with exposure to a chemical agent, according to Syrian American Medical Society, a relief organization.

“Following the chemical attack, the target site and the surrounding area of the hospital receiving the injured were attacked with barrel bombs, which hindered the ability of the ambulances to reach the victims,” it said.

Hours later, the rebels began to withdraw.

GRAPHIC: Overview of chemical warfare, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2pKDWOY

(Additional reporting by Stephen Kalin in Riyadh, Laila Bassam, Tom Perry and Ellen Francis in Beirut and Christian Lowe in Moscow; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Russia’s Putin predicts global ‘chaos’ if West hits Syria again

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a ceremony to receive credentials from foreign ambassadors at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia April 11, 2018. Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool via REUTERS

By Jack Stubbs and Laila Bassam

MOSCOW/DAMASCUS (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin warned on Sunday that further Western attacks on Syria would bring chaos to world affairs, while signs emerged that Moscow and Washington want to pull back from the worst crisis in their relations for years.

Putin made his remarks in a telephone conversation with Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani after the United States, France and Britain launched missile strikes on Syria on Saturday over a suspected poison gas attack.

A Kremlin statement said Putin and Rouhani agreed that the Western strikes had damaged the chances of achieving a political resolution in the multi-sided, seven-year conflict that has killed at least half a million people.

“Vladimir Putin, in particular, stressed that if such actions committed in violation of the U.N. Charter continue, then it will inevitably lead to chaos in international relations,” a Kremlin statement said.

The attacks struck at the heart of Syria’s chemical weapons program, Washington said, in retaliation for a suspected poison gas attack a week ago. All three participants insisted the strikes were not aimed at toppling President Bashar al-Assad or intervening in the conflict.

The bombings, hailed by U.S. President Donald Trump as a success but denounced by Damascus and its allies as an act of aggression, marked the biggest intervention by Western countries against Assad and ally Russia, whose foreign minister Sergei Lavrov called them “unacceptable and lawless”.

Putin’s comments were published shortly after Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov struck a more conciliatory note by saying Moscow would make every effort to improve political relations with the West.

When asked whether Russia was prepared to work with the proposals of Western countries at the United Nations, Ryabkov told TASS news agency: “Now the political situation is extremely tense, the atmosphere is extremely electrified, so I will not make any predictions.

“We will work calmly, methodically and professionally, using all opportunities to remove the situation from its current extremely dangerous political peak.”

Russian Foreign Ministry official Vladimir Ermakov said Washington would want to maintain a dialogue with Moscow about strategic stability after the raids, Russian media reported.

“In the U.S. administration there are specific people who it is possible to talk with,” said Ermakov, head of the ministry’s department for non-proliferation and arms control.

In Damascus, Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, met inspectors from the global chemical weapons watchdog OPCW for about three hours in the presence of Russian officers and a senior Syrian security official.

The inspectors were due to attempt to visit the site of the suspected gas attack in Douma on April 7, which medical relief organizations say killed dozens of people. Moscow condemned the Western states for refusing to wait for OPCW’s findings before attacking.

A U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer and crew, being deployed to launch strike as part of the multinational response to Syria's use of chemical weapons, is seen in this image released from Al Udeid Air Base, Doha, Qatar on April 14, 2018. U.S. Air Force/Handout via REUTERS

A U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer and crew, being deployed to launch strike as part of the multinational response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, is seen in this image released from Al Udeid Air Base, Doha, Qatar on April 14, 2018. U.S. Air Force/Handout via REUTERS

HYSTERIA

Mekdad declined to comment to reporters waiting outside the hotel where the meeting took place.

Russia denounced allegations of a gas attack in Douma and said it was staged by Britain to whip up anti-Russian hysteria.

In an indication that the West, too, would prefer to lower tensions, the United States and Britain both reiterated that their military action on Saturday was not aimed at Assad, Putin’s ally, only at his use of chemical weapons.

Speaking to the BBC, Britain’s Foreign Secretary (Minister) Boris Johnson said that Western powers had no plans for further missile strikes, though they would assess their options if Damascus used chemical weapons again.

“This is not about regime change … This is not about trying to turn the tide of the conflict in Syria,” he told the BBC, adding that Russia was the only country able to pressure Assad to negotiate an end to the conflict.

Asked about U.S.-Russia relations, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said ties were “very strained” but that the United States still hoped for a better relationship.

Haley said that the United States would not pull its troops out of Syria until its goals were accomplished. Speaking on Fox News Sunday, Haley listed three aims for the United States: ensuring that chemical weapons are not used in any way that poses a risk to U.S. interests, that Islamic State is defeated and that there is a good vantage point to watch what Iran is doing.

Trump has made clear he wants to withdraw the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops involved in the anti-Islamic State campaign in Syria. But he appeared to contradict that message when he said on Saturday that Western allies were prepared to “sustain” the military response if Assad does not stop using prohibited chemical weapons.

British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn said the legal basis used to support the British role was debatable, adding that he would only support action backed by the U.N. Security Council.

“I say to the foreign secretary, I say to the prime minister, where is the legal basis for this?” Corbyn said in an interview with the BBC.

“RESILIENCE”

In Damascus, Assad told a group of visiting Russian lawmakers that the Western missile strikes were an act of aggression, Russian news agencies reported.

Syria released video of the wreckage of a bombed-out research lab, but also of Assad arriving at work as usual, with the caption “morning of resilience” and there were no immediate reports of casualties.

Russian agencies quoted the lawmakers as saying that Assad was in a “good mood”, had praised the Soviet-era air defense systems Syria used to repel the Western attacks and had accepted an invitation to visit Russia at an unspecified time.

President Trump had said “mission accomplished” on Twitter after the strikes, though U.S. Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie at the Pentagon acknowledged elements of the program remain and he could not guarantee that Syria would be unable to conduct a chemical attack in the future.

Russian and Iranian military help over the past three years has allowed Assad to crush the rebel threat to topple him.

The United States, Britain and France have all participated in the Syrian conflict for years, arming rebels, bombing Islamic State fighters and deploying troops to fight the militants. But they have refrained from targeting Assad’s government, apart from a volley of U.S. missiles last year.

RED LINE BREACHED?

France, the United States and Britain plan to put forward a new draft resolution aimed at dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons program, wiping out terrorism, demanding a ceasefire across Syria and finding a political solution to the war, French U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre told the council on Saturday.

Most Gulf stock markets rose on Sunday, supported by firm oil prices and relief that the weekend’s military attack on Syria was relatively limited in scope and there was no immediate retaliation.

Internationally, gold and oil are expected to extend gains on Monday, albeit modestly, when the markets open for the first time since the missile attack. Equities and bonds are unlikely to suffer big losses unless the West strikes again or Russia retaliates.

Gold has benefited in recent days as a safe-haven asset amid a U.S.-China trade dispute and the escalating conflict in Syria, which also pushed oil above $70 a barrel on concerns over a spike in Middle Eastern tensions.

The strikes suggest that Trump may have reset America’s red line for military intervention in Syria over the use of chemical weapons.

The U.S. Navy guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey fires a Tomahawk land attack missile April 14, 2018. U.S. Navy/Lt. j.g Matthew Daniels/Handout via REUTERS.

The U.S. Navy guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey fires a Tomahawk land attack missile April 14, 2018. U.S. Navy/Lt. j.g Matthew Daniels/Handout via REUTERS.

In Washington, a senior administration official said that “while the available information is much greater on the chlorine use, we do have significant information that also points to sarin use” in the attack.

Sarin had previously appeared to be the threshold for intervention. Chlorine, in contrast, has been used more widely in Syria’s conflict without past U.S. reprisals and is far easier to find and weaponize, experts say.

Washington described the strike targets as a center near Damascus for the research, development, production and testing of chemical and biological weapons; a chemical weapons storage site near the city of Homs; and another site near Homs that stored chemical weapons equipment and housed a command post.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described the attack as a crime and the Western leaders as criminals, while U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged all Security Council members to use restraint but said charges of chemical weapons use demand investigation.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis called on world leaders to renew efforts to bring peace to Syria, saying he was deeply troubled by their failure to agree on a joint plan to end the bloodshed.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper and Tom Perry; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, Jeff Mason, Steve Holland, Idrees Ali, Yara Bayoumy, Matt Spetalnick and Joel Schectman in Washington; Michelle Nichols in New York; Samia Nakhoul, Tom Perry, Laila Bassam, Ellen Francis and Angus McDowall in Beirut; Kinda Makieh in Barzeh; Michael Holden and Guy Faulconbridge in London; and Jean-Baptiste Vey, Geert de Clercq and Matthias Blamont in Paris; Andrey Ostroukh and Jack Stubbs in Moscow; Alison Bevege in Sydney,; Writing by William Maclean; Editing by Adrian Croft, Alexander Smith and David Goodman)

U.S., UK, France strike Syria to punish Assad for suspected poison gas use

A missile is seen crossing over Damascus, Syria April 14, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

By Steve Holland and Tom Perry

WASHINGTON/BEIRUT (Reuters) – 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”.

A child is treated in a hospital in Douma, eastern Ghouta in Syria, after what a Syria medical relief group claims was a suspected chemical attack April, 7, 2018. White Helmets/Handout via REUTERS

A child is treated in a hospital in Douma, eastern Ghouta in Syria, after what a Syria medical relief group claims was a suspected chemical attack April, 7, 2018. White Helmets/Handout via REUTERS

As he spoke, explosions rocked Damascus. In the morning he tweeted: “Mission accomplished”.

The bombing represents a major escalation in the West’s 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 at once both reckless and pointless.

By morning, the Western countries said their bombing was over for now. Syria released video of the wreckage of a bombed-out research lab, but also of President Bashar al-Assad arriving at work as usual, with the caption “morning of resilience”.

There were no immediate reports of casualties, with Damascus allies saying the buildings hit had been evacuated in advance.

British Prime Minister Theresa May described the strike as “limited and targeted”, with no intention of toppling Assad or intervening more widely in the war. She said she had authorized British action after intelligence showed Assad’s government was to blame for gassing the Damascus suburb of Douma a week ago.

In a speech she gave a vivid description of the victims of the chemical strike that killed scores, huddling in basements as gas rained down. She said Russia had thwarted diplomatic efforts to halt Assad’s use of poison gas, leaving no option but force.

French President Emmanuel Macron said the strikes had been limited so far to Syria’s chemical weapons facilities. Paris released a dossier which it said showed Damascus was to blame for the poison gas attack on Douma, the last town holding out in a rebel-held swathe of territory near Damascus which government forces have recaptured in this year’s biggest offensive.

Washington described its targets as a center near Damascus for the research, development, production and testing of chemical and biological weapons, a chemical weapons storage site near the city of Homs and another site near Homs that stored chemical weapons equipment and housed a command post.

A plane prepares to take off as part of the joint airstrike operation by the British, French and U.S. militaries in Syria, in this still image from video footage obtained on April 14, 2018 from social media. courtesy Elysee/Twitter/via REUTERS

A plane prepares to take off as part of the joint airstrike operation by the British, French and U.S. militaries in Syria, in this still image from video footage obtained on April 14, 2018 from social media. courtesy Elysee/Twitter/via REUTERS

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim 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.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss what Moscow decried as an unjustified attack on a sovereign state. Diplomats said the meeting would take place in New York at 11:00 am (1500 GMT).

Syrian state media called the attack a “flagrant violation of international law.” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called it a crime and the Western leaders criminals.

Inspectors from the global chemical weapons watchdog OPCW were due to try to visit Douma later on Saturday to inspect the site of the April 7 suspected gas attack. Moscow condemned the Western states for refusing to wait for their findings.

Russia, whose relations with the West have deteriorated to levels of Cold War-era hostility, has denied any gas attack took place in Douma and even accused Britain of staging it to whip up anti-Russian hysteria.

But despite responding outwardly with fury to Saturday’s attack, Damascus and its allies also made clear that they considered it a one-off, unlikely to meaningfully harm Assad.

“ABSORBED” THE ATTACKS

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.

Dmitry Belik, a Russian member of parliament who was in Damascus and witnessed the strikes, told Reuters by email: “The attack was more of a psychological nature rather than practical. Luckily there are no substantial losses or damages.”

At least six loud explosions were heard in Damascus and smoke rose over the city, a Reuters witness said. A second witness said the Barzah district of Damascus was hit.

A scientific research lab in Barzah appeared to have been completely destroyed, according to footage broadcast by Syrian state TV station al-Ikhbariya. Smoke rose from piles of rubble and a heavily damaged bus was parked outside.

But the Western intervention has virtually no chance of altering the military balance of power at a time when Assad is in his strongest position since the war’s early months.

ASSAD STRONG

In Douma, site of last week’s suspected gas attack, the final buses were due on Saturday to transport out rebels and their families who agreed to surrender the town, Syrian state TV reported. That effectively ends all resistance in the suburbs of Damascus known as eastern Ghouta, marking one of the biggest victories for Assad’s government of the entire war.

Russian and Iranian military help over the past three years has let Assad crush the rebel threat to topple him.

The United States, Britain and France have all participated in the Syrian conflict for years, arming rebels, bombing Islamic State fighters and deploying troops on the ground to fight that group. But they have 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, lacking a wider strategy to defeat him.

The Western powers were at pains on Saturday to avert any further escalation, including any unexpected conflict with their superpower rival Russia. French Defense Minister Florence Parly said the Russians “were warned beforehand” to avert conflict.

The combined U.S., British and French assault involved more missiles, but appears to have struck more limited targets, than a similar strike Trump ordered a year ago in retaliation for an earlier suspected chemical weapons attack. Last year’s U.S. strike, which Washington said at the time would cripple Assad’s air forces and defenses, had effectively no impact on the war.

Mattis said the United States conducted the strikes with conclusive evidence that chlorine gas had been used in the April 7 attack in Syria. Evidence that the nerve agent sarin also was used was inconclusive, he said.

Syria agreed in 2013 to give up its chemical weapons after a nerve gas attack killed hundreds of people in Douma. Damascus is still permitted to have chlorine for civilian use, although its use as a weapon is banned. Allegations of Assad’s chlorine use have been frequent during the war, although unlike nerve agents chlorine did not produce mass casualties as seen last week.

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.

EXIT SYRIA?

The U.S., British and French leaders all face domestic political issues surrounding the decision to use force in Syria.

Trump has been leery of U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, and is eager to withdraw roughly 2,000 troops in Syria taking part in the campaign against Islamic State.

“America does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria, under no circumstances,” Trump said in his address.

Trump has tried to build good relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A prosecutor is investigating whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow in illegal efforts to help him get elected, an investigation Trump calls a witch hunt.

In Britain, May’s decision to strike without consulting parliament overturns an arrangement in place since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Her predecessor David Cameron was politically hurt when he lost a parliamentary vote on whether to bomb Syria.

Britain has led international condemnation of Russia, persuading more than 20 countries to expel Russian diplomats, over the poisoning with a nerve agent of a former Russian spy in England last month. May made clear that case was part of her calculus in ordering retaliation for chemical weapons in Syria.

She argued on Saturday it was necessary to act quickly without waiting for parliament’s approval. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn accused her of following Trump, hugely unpopular in Britain, into battle without waiting for the evidence.

In France, Macron has long threatened to use force against Assad if he uses chemical weapons, and had faced criticism over what opponents described as an empty threat.

To view a graphic on an overview of chemical warfare, click: http://tmsnrt.rs/2pKDWOY

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Tom Perry,; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, Tim Ahmann, Eric Beech, Lesley Wroughton, Lucia Mutikani, Idrees Ali, Patricia Zengerle, Matt Spetalnick and John Walcott in Washington; Samia Nakhoul, Tom Perry, Laila Bassam, Ellen Francis and Angus McDowall in Beirut; Michael Holden and Guy Faulconbridge in London; and Jean-Baptiste Vey, Geert de Clerq and Matthias Blamont in Paris; Polina Ivanova in Moscow; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Russia spied on Skripal and daughter for at least 5 years: UK

Salisbury District Hospital is seen after Yulia Skripal was discharged, in Salisbury, Britain, April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicho

LONDON (Reuters) – Russia’s intelligence agencies spied on former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia for at least five years before they were attacked with a nerve agent in March, the national security adviser to Britain’s prime minister said.

Mark Sedwill said in a letter to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Friday that email accounts of Yulia had been targeted in 2013 by cyber specialists from Russia’s GRU military intelligence service.

Sedwill also said in the letter, which was published by the government, that it was “highly likely that the Russian intelligence services view at least some of its defectors as legitimate targets for assassination.”

The Skripals were targeted by what London says was a nerve agent attack that left both of them critically ill for weeks. British Prime Minister Theresa May has said it is highly likely that Moscow was behind the attack.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted on Friday that a report this week by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) did not confirm the origin of the poison used against the Skripals.

Lavrov said the report only confirmed the composition of the substance and that Britain’s claim that it confirmed the UK position on the Skripal case was overstated.

Separately on Friday, Russia’s ambassador to Britain said he was concerned the British government was trying to get rid of evidence related to the case.

“We get the impression that the British government is deliberately pursuing the policy of destroying all possible evidence, classifying all remaining materials and making an independent and transparent investigation impossible,” Alexander Yakovenko told reporters.

He also said Russia could not be sure about the authenticity of a statement issued by Yulia Skripal on Wednesday in which she declined the offer of help from the Russian embassy.

(Reporting by Kate Holton; Writing by William Schomberg and Elisabeth O’Leary; Editing by Stephen Addison)