DOUMA, Syria -- Chemical arms inspectors were blocked on Monday from the scene of a suspected chemical attack near Syria's capital, halting international efforts to establish what happened and who was to blame.
The inspectors, from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, arrived in Syria on Saturday to investigate the site of the April 7 attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma, which killed dozens.
But 48 hours later, the inspectors were prevented from reaching the site, which Syrian and Russian forces have captured from rebels.
The inspectors, who wanted to take samples and interview people, "are currently being prevented from doing so by the regime and the Russians," Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain said in Parliament.
The U.S. ambassador to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Monday that Russia could be trying to conceal evidence of chemical weapons.
"It is our understanding the Russians may have visited the attack site," the ambassador, Kenneth Ward, said. "We are concerned they may have tampered with it with the intent of thwarting the efforts of the OPCW fact-finding mission to conduct an effective investigation."
Ward and others attended a meeting of the organization's executive council in The Hague on Monday. The meeting was held in private, but the organization released the prepared statements of Ahmet Uzumcu, the organization's director general, and some other officials.
The Syrian military, with help from its Russian and Iranian allies, this month retook control of Eastern Ghouta, a suburban area that was the last major rebel-held enclave near Damascus, the capital. Douma was the last part of the region to fall.
The Douma attack led to airstrikes in Syria over the weekend by the U.S. and its allies, Britain and France, which said they believed that President Bashar Assad's forces had carried it out.
The Western allies said the airstrikes were aimed at degrading the chemical arms capabilities of Assad, who promised to purge Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons after a mass attack in 2013. Assad has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons.
NO ATTACK, PUTIN SAYS
President Vladimir Putin of Russia and his subordinates have called the accusations of Russian complicity a lie that has contributed to the worst East-West tensions since the Cold War.
Russian and Syrian officials have suggested that a chemical attack never occurred in Douma, or that it was staged by rebel forces or Western powers as an excuse for attacking Syria.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the United Nations, not Russia, had delayed the inspectors at the Douma site.
"As far as I understand, what is hampering a speedy resolution of this problem is the consequences of the illegal, unlawful military action that Great Britain and other countries conducted on Saturday," he said.
Ryabkov argued that Britain was too quick to say Russia was responsible.
"It is the style of today's London to blame Moscow for everything," Ryabkov said, noting that Britain has also accused Russia of using a nerve agent to poison a Russian former spy living in Britain and his daughter.
But a spokesman for the United Nations, Stephane Dujarric, said the U.N. had given the inspectors "all the necessary clearances" to visit the Douma site, and wanted them to inspect it quickly. Dujarric said U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres wanted the investigation to move forward "so we can have a full picture of all the facts."
Alexander Shulgin, the Russian envoy at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said allegations that Russia might destroy evidence reflected a U.S. effort to justify Saturday's strikes.
"It's a clumsy effort to find an explanation if the claim of the chemical weapons use in Syria fails to get confirmation," Shulgin said at a briefing. "Our American partners are clearly getting nervous. They are frantically looking for some justification if their claims that served as the reason for the strike don't receive confirmation."
In an interview with the BBC, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov responded to charges that Russia was attempting to conceal evidence of a chemical attack by saying, "I can guarantee that Russia has not tampered with the site."
Lavrov accused Britain of playing a part in the supposed ruse, which British officials called outrageous.
SANCTIONS WALKED BACK
The news from Syria came on a day in which the White House walked back the weekend announcement that new economic sanctions against Russia are imminent.
Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said Sunday on CBS' Face the Nation that U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin would announce the penalties Monday, "if he hasn't already." Haley said the sanctions would target those who are enabling Assad's government to continue using chemical weapons.
No such announcement was planned, according to two officials familiar with the matter who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
As officials in Moscow condemned the planned sanctions as overly punitive, President Donald Trump conferred with his national security advisers later Sunday and told them he was upset the sanctions were being officially rolled out because he was not yet comfortable executing them, according to several people familiar with the plan.
Sometime after Haley's comments, the Trump administration notified the Russian Embassy in Washington that the sanctions were not in fact coming, a Russian Foreign Ministry official said Monday.
The Trump team decided to publicly characterize Haley's announcement as a misstatement.
"We are considering additional sanctions on Russia and a decision will be made in the near future," White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement Monday.
Haley issued no clarifying statement on Sunday after news organizations reported prominently, based on her comments to CBS, that the new sanctions would be announced Monday.
Asked Monday morning why it had taken 24 hours for the administration to walk back Haley's comments, one White House official said only that there had been confusion internally about what the plan was.
Russian lawmakers had vowed Friday that they were going to make the United States pay for already imposed sanctions, potentially by blocking American imports or U.S.-Russian aerospace cooperation, or by allowing Russians to violate U.S. intellectual property rights. Russia, one top lawmaker promised, was going to "hit the Americans in the gut."
But after the Kremlin got word through Russia's embassy in Washington that new sanctions would not be coming, Moscow officials became less confrontational, though they continued to criticize existing sanctions as U.S. attempts to gain economic advantage. Senior lawmakers in the lower house of Russia's parliament on Monday decided to hold off until May 15 before considering any counter-sanctions against the United States. Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said lawmakers needed to meet with experts and the business community first.
Ryabkov also urged calm.
"Let's first wait until these sanctions are implemented," Ryabkov said in reference to possible new U.S. sanctions, Interfax reported. "We have to see what will be announced, at what scale, and who or what will become the targets of these sanctions."
Also on Monday, the U.S. and Britain jointly accused the Russian government of maliciously targeting global Internet equipment for political and economic espionage.
The two governments said the Russian operations involve planting malware on Internet routers and other equipment, and that they could lay the foundation for future offensive cyberattacks.
A joint statement by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the U.K.'s National Cyber Security Center said the main targets include "government and private-sector organizations," as well as providers of "critical infrastructure" and internet service providers.
"Victims were identified through a coordinated series of actions between U.S. and international partners," according to a companion technical alert issued by the U.S. Computer Emergency Response Team. Both nations have "high confidence" in the finding of Russian-sponsored cyber-meddling, which the alert said has been reported by multiple sources since 2015.
Routers are devices that direct data traffic across the Internet. The U.S. team said the compromised routers can be exploited for "man-in-the-middle" spoofing attacks, in which communications are intercepted by a seemingly trusted device that has actually been infiltrated by an attacker.
"The current state of U.S. network devices -- coupled with a Russian government campaign to exploit these devices -- threatens the safety, security, and economic well-being of the United States," the alert stated. An email message seeking comment from the Russian embassy in Washington received no response.
The U.S. team urged affected companies, public sector organizations and even people who use routers in home offices to take action to harden poorly-secured devices. But its alert cited only one specific product: Cisco's Smart Install software.
Information for this article was contributed by Richard Perez-Pena and Rick Gladstone of The New York Times; by Bassem Mroue, Matthew Lee, Zeke Miller, Frank Bajak, Nataliya Vasilyeva, Albert Aji, Sarah El Deeb, Edith M. Lederer and Raf Casert of The Associated Press; and by Philip Rucker, Carol D. Leonnig, Anton Troianovski, Greg Jaffe, Shane Harris, John Hudson and Ashley Parker of The Washington Post.
A Section on 04/17/2018
Print Headline: Syria blocks poison-gas team; Haley’s talk of sanctions rolled back