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Chemical watchdog says to deploy to Syria as threats escalate

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The global chemical watchdog said Tuesday it will deploy a team to the site of an alleged toxic attack in Syria, as US President Donald Trump weighed military action with Damascus on high alert.

Warnings from the US leader there would be a “big price to pay” for the alleged attack have raised the spectre of an American strike on Syria, setting up a potential confrontation with regime backer Russia.

Moscow, which has troops on the ground in Syria, has already warned that US military action would be “very, very dangerous”.

Both Trump and his defence secretary Jim Mattis on Tuesday abruptly cancelled upcoming travel plans, as the USS Donald Cook — a guided-missile destroyer — moved to within easy striking range of Syria.

French President Emmanuel Macron — who has been coordinating closely with Washington — said he would decide on a response “in the coming days” and target the Syrian regime if Paris strikes.

“Our decision will not target allies of the regime or attack anyone but rather attack the regime’s chemical capabilities,” he said, insisting he did “not want an escalation”.

As it looked to head off the threat of Western strikes, Syria said it had invited the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to visit the site of the alleged attack.

“Syria is ready to provide all necessary assistance to the mission,” it said.

Several hours later, the OPCW said it will “shortly” deploy a fact-finding team to the rebel-held Syrian town of Douma for an investigation.

In anticipation of a potential strike, Syria’s military forces were simultaneously mobilising.

“At midnight, the army command put all military positions on alert, including airports and all bases, for a period of 72 hours,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Tuesday.

A source from a pro-regime unit told AFP Tuesday there were “precautionary measures being taken by the Syrian army, especially the airports and military bases.”

Even residents of the capital were bracing themselves.

“I have lived through seven American presidents, but Trump is the craziest and his administration is unbalanced,” said Abu Fadi, 70.

“I think his threats are to be feared, and we should take them seriously.”

– US, Russia face UN clash –

In 2017, Trump launched a cruise missile strike against a Syrian air base in retaliation for a sarin attack the UN later pinned on President Bashar al-Assad.

Syria’s government has denied accusations of using toxic weapons including chlorine and sarin throughout the country’s seven-year war.

First responders in rebel-held Douma say more than 40 people died on Saturday after the suspected gas attack, which left victims wheezing, with discoloured skin, and foaming at the mouth.

The town has been heavily bombed by Syria and Russia and cut off by the regime, making it extremely difficult for media including AFP to independently verify the claims.

United Nations chief Antonio Guterres said Tuesday the OPCW should be granted unfettered access to investigate the reports.

The OPCW does not have the mandate to establish who is responsible for attacks, and the joint OPCW-UN taskforce that once did was shut down by Russia last year after it blamed the Syria regime.

The UN Security Council will vote Tuesday on rival US and Russian draft resolutions as diplomats from both nations clash.

The council will first vote on a US proposal to investigate chemical weapons attacks in Syria and identify their perpetrators, but the measure is likely to face a veto from Russia.

Russia has put forward two of its own proposals: one from January calling for an inquiry and a second backing the OPCW’s deployment to Syria that would not see perpetrators named.

Moscow said its own investigators have already entered Douma and found no trace of chemical use.

“Fabrications and false stories are being used to find some pretext for the use of military force,” deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov said.

At a fiery Security Council meeting Monday, Syria’s UN ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari accused Western powers of staging attacks to justify military action against Damascus.

Jaafari said Washington, Paris, and others were falsely accusing his government of chemical use “in order to pave the way for an attack on Syria like the US and Britain’s criminal aggression against Iraq in 2003.”

Damascus narrowly avoided American and French air strikes in 2013 in retaliation for a suspected sarin attack by agreeing to hand over its chemical arsenal.

That incident, which killed hundreds in the deadliest use of toxic gas, also took place in Eastern Ghouta, the suburb outside the Syrian capital where Douma is located.

– ‘I won’t wait’ –

Trump has repeatedly threatened to respond “forcefully” to the most recent allegations in Douma, saying the US had “a lot of options militarily” and would decide in the coming days.

Washington has been coordinating closely with London and Paris, which has said it would retaliate against Assad if it was proved he had crossed a “red line” by gassing Douma.

The White House said Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May in a phone call “agreed not to allow the use of chemical weapons to continue.”

Douma is the last rebel-controlled area in Ghouta, the opposition’s former stronghold on the edges of Damascus.

Since February 18, Assad has captured most of Ghouta with a ferocious military assault and two negotiated rebel withdrawals.

A third deal was reached for Douma just hours after the reported chemical attack, and a 65-bus convoy of rebels and civilians was evacuated from the town overnight.

Evacuations are expected to continue, with many residents — including a medic who treated victims of the reported attack — waiting to leave.

“It’s good that the OPCW will come,” Mohammad told AFP, but adding that those who could provide eyewitness accounts feared retaliation by the regime and would choose to be bussed out.

“I won’t wait for them. I have to leave before they come, because if I give my account, maybe revenge will be taken out on my loved ones.”


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