Russia has warned that any American strikes on Syria in response to a suspected chemical attack on the rebel-held city of Douma could lead to war between the U.S. and Russia. “The immediate priority is to avert the danger of war,” Moscow’s UN ambassador, Vassily Nebenzya, said. The UN Security Council is due to meet later on 13 April after a request from Russia.
Tensions have run high since U.S. President Donald J. Trump wrote Russia should “get ready” for air strikes in Syria, though he later cast doubt on their timing. “Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!” he tweeted on April 12.
France and Britain are also considering taking action in Syria. British Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet agreed on the “need to take action” in Syria but have put off their final decision. Similarly, French president Emmanuel Macron said he had proof that a chemical attack took place in the Syrian city of Douma on April 7 but that he would make a decision on whether to join strikes in Syria “in due course”.
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Meanwhile, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is due to send a team to investigate whether chemical weapons were used in Douma. The World Health Organization has also demanded “unhindered access” to the rebel-held city in order to check reports of over 500 injuries linked to chemical weapons use.
This comes after Moscow and Washington clashed at the UN over responses to the alleged chemical attack. At a meeting of the UN Security Council on April 10, the two sides blocked competing resolutions to set up a mechanism to investigate chemical weapons use in Syria. The American proposal would have given the new investigative body the task of identifying those accountable for the attack while the Russian draft left that responsibility with the Security Council.
The Syrian and Russian governments have denied reports of chemical weapons use, with Vassily Nebenzya calling them a “fabrication” and accusing the White Helmet volunteer group of cooperating with terrorists, according to Syrian state media. (Read WikiTribune‘s analysis: Russia’s ‘disinformation campaign’ on Salisbury attack follows familiar script.)
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Efforts to establish whether chemical weapons were used have been hindered by a lack of access to the area. While activist and medical organizations such as the White Helmets and the Syrian American Medical Society have reported more than 40 deaths and hundreds of injuries linked to the attack, there has been no independent verification and access to the area remains very limited.
If these reports are confirmed, the attack on April 7 would be the deadliest since around 100 people died from sarin gas in Khan Sheikhoun, northwestern Syria, in April 2017. A UN investigation later said the Syrian government was responsible for these strikes. On that occasion, the U.S. launched 59 Tomahawk missiles against a Syrian air base in retaliation.
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Investigation site Bellingcat has received videos from activists in Douma and has been using open source tools and social media to identify the locations shown in the footage.
Bellingcat has been asked not to share the videos until the activists are safely evacuated the town but it did describe them to WikiTribune. “One shows the rooftop of a building with a yellow gas cylinder embedded in it. It was filmed on the H shaped building at [geographic coordinates] 33.573900, 36.404831, which we’ve confirmed by geolocation,” said Bellingcat founder Eliott Higgins.
Higgins added that this was the same building shown in a number of other (warning: graphic) verified videos apparently showing victims of the attack. Finding the exact location in the videos is an important step in the verification process because it can help prove whether the footage is actually from Douma. (Read the WikiTribune story: Russia changes the rules of warfare, perfecting ‘hybrid war.’)