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Assad regime sets conditions for inquiry into Syria gas attack

Members of the United Nations Security Council called an emergency meeting after the chemical attack in Syria on 5 April 2017 in New York, US (Volkan Furuncu - Anadolu Agency )
Members of the United Nations Security Council attend an emergency meeting after the chemical attack in Syria on 5 April 2017 in New York, US (Volkan Furuncu - Anadolu Agency )

The Syrian Bashar Al-Assad regime set conditions today for any international inquiry into a chemical attack that killed scores of people, saying it must not be "politicised" and should set out from Damascus and not Turkey.

Foreign Minister Walid Al-Moualem said Syria's past experience with international inquiries had not been encouraging. The government would only decide on the idea once its concerns were addressed, he said.

Al-Moualem also reiterated the government's strong denial that it was behind the attack on Tuesday in Khan Sheikhoun in the northwestern province of Idlib, an area mostly controlled by opposition groups at the border with Turkey.

Read: UK PM calls for investigation into reported Syria chemical attack

US President Donald Trump yesterday said President Bashar Al-Assad's government had gone "beyond a red line" and said his attitude towards Syria and Al-Assad had changed. But he gave no indication of how he would respond.

Al-Moualem did not directly respond to questions about Trump's comments. But he said he recognised "the gravity" of recent US statements, and cited speculation US comments may have been a means of exercising diplomatic pressure at the United Nations.

Al-Moualem, speaking at a news conference in Damascus, said the Syrian government's Russian allies had put forward ideas for the formation of a "non-politicised commission of inquiry".

The Assad regime's top diplomat said:

It must not be politicised, it must leave from Damascus and not Turkey. We have numerous questions about this subject. When we are certain these questions are addressed with convincing answers, we will give you our response.

Russian explanations rubbished by experts

Western states have accused the Assad regime of carrying out the chemical attack on Tuesday that killed at least 100 people including at least 20 children. Russia has said the deaths were caused by a gas leak from a depot where rebel groups were storing chemical weapons after a Syrian airstrike.

Echoing the Assad regime's Russian benefactors, Al-Moualem said a Syrian air strike had hit a store where the Al-Nusra Front was storing chemical weapons. The Al-Nusra Front was formerly an

Al-Qaeda affiliate before breaking off ties and undergoing changes, now fighting as part of the Sham Liberation Organisation (SLO), also called Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) in Arabic. He said the Al-Nusra Front and Daesh had both been storing chemical weapons in urban areas of Syria.

However, these claims have been rubbished by chemical weapons and military experts, who described Russian attempts to explain away the Assad regime's suspected culpability for the chemical weapons massacre as "infantile" and "fanciful".

British chemical weapons expert Colonel Hamish de Bretton-Gordon said that Russian explanations were unconvincing due to the fact that high explosive munitions would have destroyed sarin, not dispersed it:

I think this is pretty fanciful and no doubt [it is just] the Russians trying to protect their allies. Axiomatically, if you blow up sarin, you destroy it.

Bretton-Gordon's comments were supported by security expert Dan Kaszeta who also concluded that, "From a technical chemical weapons perspective, it seems unlikely that the Russian 'warehouse/depot' narrative is plausible as the source of the chemical exposure."

Further holes in regime account

Opposition factions have denied that there were any military positions in the area targeted in Tuesday's airstrike.

Al-Moualem's account was placed in further doubt when he also said the first Syrian airstrike carried out in the area took place at 11:30 local time (0830 GMT), some five hours after an air raid observer in Khan Sheikhoun reported that a lone Syrian jet had dropped at least four bombs there, including one that released a cloud of white smoke consistent with sarin gas canisters.

Sarin gas

    The effects of exposure are instant and lead to an excruciating death. Inhaling even tiny amounts causes drooling and vomiting. Less than a minute after exposure, the victim's nervous system is under sustained attack, making the body unable to control breathing, the victim foams at the mouth with blood-flecked discharges.

"I confirm to you once again that the Syrian Arab Army has not and will not use this type of weapon against our people and our children, and not even against the terrorists who kill our people," Al-Moualem said.

Al-Moualem also said he saw a basis for an eventual "understanding" with Kurdish militant groups that have established control over wide areas of northern Syria, where they are fighting Daesh with US support.

He said the Kurds wanted to remain part of Syria. "I am confident we will reach an understanding with them after accomplishing the struggle against terrorism", he said.

The head of the main Syrian Kurdish separatist militia, the YPG, last month indicated it was ready to reach an accommodation with the Syrian government once Kurdish rights are secured. The dominant Syrian Kurdish parties say they want to maintain a form of local autonomy in an eventual settlement to the Syrian war.

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