Preparations are underway in the Damascus countryside to carry out new chemical weapons use theatrics, Moscow has warned. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stressed the need to send an investigation committee to Khan Sheikhoun in the Idleb countryside to examine the claim that chemical weapons were used there, while the Russian Defense Ministry vowed to guarantee the cease-fire to facilitate the entry of international inspectors to the area.
The director for the Department of Non-Proliferation and Arms Control in the Russian Foreign Ministry, Mikhail Ulyanov, said, “It is possible a new chemical theater could occur in the Damascus countryside in the coming days,” without clarifying the nature of information the ministry had in this respect.
At the same time, Russian diplomats have not ruled out that the Khan Sheikhoun incident actually resulted from the use of chemical weapons. However, they have raised questions surrounding culpability. The official Russian line asserts there is no evidence proving that the Syrian authorities hid poisonous materials after the operation to destroy its chemical arsenal years ago.
This coincided with Moscow escalating its tone around the need to carry out a broad investigation into the issue of the Syrian chemical attack. Lavrov said that Russia was surprised at the decision of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons “not to form a mission to investigate the Khan Sheikhoun incident where the alleged chemical attack occurred.”
The Russian minister said during a joint press conference with the European Union foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, that the decision not to send a mission to the scene of the chemical incident was “surprising.” He added that Moscow will continue working toward sending an international team of experts to Khan Sheikhoun and Shayrat air base in Homs with strict observance of its mandate.
He said that the Americans had directly asked Moscow after the Khan Sheikhoun incident to help send experts to Shayrat air base to investigate suspicions that there is evidence of bombs containing chemical materials in the base. However, Lavrov added, when Moscow proposed its initiative in The Hague regarding sending experts to Syria, the secretariat of the group and the Western states did not agree to the idea of investigating the air base.
He continued that he had drawn the attention of his American counterpart, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, to this “double standard” and asked that Russia be supplied with information about the investigation to ensure transparency. He added that Washington had informed Russia that it would obtain samples to be tested without clarifying who would take them and in what laboratory would they be analyzed. The Russian diplomat also questioned whether there would be a guarantee that these samples would not be tampered with during their transport to the laboratory.
Meanwhile, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that the Syrian army was ready to halt its forces’ operations in Khan Sheikhoun to permit the arrival of experts there. A statement published by the ministry said that “the command of the Syrian Armed Forces has expressed, at the request of the Russian Defense Ministry, its readiness to stop combat in Khan Sheikhoun if a special team of experts is sent to investigate.” The statement said, “The Syrian side is ready to announce a full prohibition on operations of its forces, aircraft and artillery in the Khan Sheikhoun area to secure the work of the team of experts in this area.” He said that Damascus was ready to secure the work of the special team in Shayrat air base as well.
Lavrov said during his talks with Mogherini that Russia would continue its efforts to resolve the crisis in Syria through political means, by activating the Astana platform and supporting the Syrian talks in Geneva in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254. He called on the European Union to focus on meeting realistic challenges in the field of security rather than fighting illusionary threats. Lavrov said that relations between the Russia and the West are passing through a difficult stage. However, he noted that Moscow is still determined to cooperate fully with the European Union as its biggest partner in the field of economy and trade.
Mogherini announced that despite the differences with Moscow around Ukraine and Crimea, the European Union and Russia had agreed to work together to fight terrorism in Syria and Libya, adding that the two sides are confronting international challenges through cooperation.
This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.