(Bloomberg) -- International investigators entered the Syrian town where an alleged chemical weapons attack triggered U.S.-led airstrikes and widened an already gaping rift between Russia and the West.
The fact-finding mission from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons made its way on Tuesday to Douma, a suburb of the capital, Damascus, according to state-run Syria TV. The inspectors had arrived in Damascus on Saturday, but the OPCW said Syrian and Russian officials had denied them access, giving rise to suspicions of evidence-tampering.
Both Syria and its patron, Russia, have denied the Syrian government poisoned civilians in Douma, the latest rebel stronghold outside Damascus to fall.
The U.S., U.K. and France accuse Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad of carrying out the April 7 attack, which killed dozens of people. The allies struck Syrian military targets over the weekend in retaliation. France’s Foreign Ministry said evidence and key elements linked to the chemical attack were likely to disappear from the site while it remained off-limits on unspecified security grounds.
The showdown over Douma has added to the bad blood between Moscow and the West over issues such as Russia’s seizure of Crimea, its intervention in eastern Ukraine and its suspected poisoning of a former Russian spy in the U.K. It also comes as the White House is being rocked by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible ties with Russia, which in recent days has led to a raid on the office of President Donald Trump’s longtime lawyer.
Trump backed down on a new round of penalties against Moscow over the Douma attack almost as soon as his government threatened them, the Washington Post reported. Trump is at odds with top officials in the state and defense departments over how deeply the U.S. should be involved in Syria’s seven-year-old civil war, with the president pushing for a pullout. The Wall Street Journal reported that the administration wants to put together an Arab force to replace its own and help stabilize northeastern Syria after the defeat of Islamic State.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Tuesday that she plans to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the “foreseeable future” for a direct exchange on the “number of issues we have in front of us.” The two leaders earlier discussed the need to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict, her chief spokesman said. The Kremlin said Putin told Merkel the Syria strike was in breach of international law.
In the U.K., Prime Minister Theresa May is taking flak from opposition quarters for not seeking the backing of parliament before joining the U.S.-led missile strikes. On Tuesday, she told lawmakers that the lives of British troops would have been put at risk if the element of surprise had been compromised.
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