Syria's envoy to the UN said experts from the global chemical-weapons watchdog are awaiting approval from a UN security team before launching their investigation in the Syrian town of Douma, the site of a suspected chemical-weapons attack that has deepened tensions between Russia and the West.
The statement by Ambassador Bashar Jaafari to the UN Security Council on April 17 followed conflicting accounts by Damascus and Washington earlier in the day about whether inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had reached Douma.
Syrian state media reported that the inspectors had been able to enter the town near Damascus, after recriminations between Western governments on one side and Syria and Russia on the other about access to the site added to mounting tensions in the wake of the suspected attack.
That was not confirmed by the OPCW, and U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that "our understanding is that the team has not entered Douma."
Jafari told the Security Council following Nauert's comments that the UN security team had entered Douma "in order to assess the security situation on the ground" and that the OPCW inspectors could begin their work in the town on April 18 if the security conditions are determined to be "sound."
"The Syrian government did all that it can do to facilitate the work of this mission," he said.
Nauert said earlier that the United States was concerned that evidence was deteriorating the longer inspectors were kept from reaching the site.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Moscow bears joint responsibility with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government, but that she intends to keep communication channels open with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"We know that in relation to the poison gas attack in Syria, that Russia as an ally of Assad has joint responsibility, there is no question about that," Merkel said at a news conference in Berlin with her New Zealand counterpart.
Merkel, who spoke with Putin by telephone earlier on April 17, added that "it is nevertheless important to keep talking to Russia."
According to the Kremlin, Putin and Merkel stressed the importance of an "objective investigation" into the suspected Douma attack. Russia claims there was no chemical-weapons attack but has not provided evidence of that assertion.
On April 16, the OPCW chief said that inspectors had not yet been granted access to the site, although Russian and Syrian officials said the delay was caused by the need to check if the roads into Douma were secure.
Putin also criticized the air strikes carried out late last week by the United States, Britain, and France against Syrian government facilities. He told Merkel that strikes were an "act of aggression" that violated the UN Charter and "dealt a substantial blow" to efforts to end the seven-year war in Syria, a Kremlin statement said.
The United States says the April 14 strikes targeted the Syrian government's chemical-weapons infrastructure following the April 7 attack on Douma. The World Health Organization has said 43 people who died suffered "symptoms consistent with exposure to highly toxic chemicals."
The Damascus government and its ally Russia insist the incident was fabricated.
OPCW inspectors arrived in Syria over the weekend to establish whether chemical weapons had been used in Douma, but had been unable to get access to the site.
Controversy Over Site
The U.S. ambassador to the OPCW, Kenneth Ward, said on April 16 that the Russians may have already visited the site and expressed concern that “they may have tampered with it with the intent of thwarting the efforts of the OPCW fact-finding mission."
A French Foreign Ministry spokesman on April 17 echoed Ward's concerns, saying, "It is very likely that proof and essential elements are disappearing from this site, which is completely controlled by the Russian and Syrian armies."
The Russian Foreign Ministry's spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, reiterated on April 17 Moscow’s denial that Russia was trying to hamper the OPCW mission.
Meanwhile, the Russian military claimed it had found a rebel laboratory for making chemical weapons in Douma containing chlorine and various ingredients for mustard gas.
The United States and its allies have said the aim of the strikes was to prevent the further use of chemical weapons, not to turn the tide of the war in Syria or topple Assad. Western governments want Assad out of power and have backed opponents seeking Assad's ouster, while Russia has given him crucial military and diplomatic support throughout the seven-year war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions.
Both the Kremlin and Merkel's office said that in their telephone conversation, the two leaders stressed the need to foster a political settlement in Syria.
"The German chancellor and the president agreed that the political process must be at the center of efforts to end the yearslong bloody conflict," Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement. "Possibilities on this were discussed."
French President Emmanuel Macron admitted on April 17 that air strikes in Syria "solve nothing" but said France, Britain, and the United States had been forced to step up and defend the "honor" of the international community.
On April 17, state media reported that Syrian air defenses had shot down several missiles over the central province of Homs, but retracted the report several hours later. State TV said the defenses had been set off by "a false alarm," not outside aggression, while a pro-regime militia commander told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the malfunction had been caused by "a joint electronic attack" by Israel and the United States targeting the Syrian radar system.
In a separate development, the French government said it plans to strip Assad of his Legion d'Honneur, France's most prestigious award.
Assad was decorated with the Legion's highest rank of Grand Croix (Great Cross) by former President Jacques Chirac in 2001, shortly after taking power following the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad.