Report on alleged April Idlib chemical attack based on questionable evidence – Russian OPCW rep

The latest OPCW report on the April Idlib chemical incident lacks sufficient evidence and is based on data provided mostly by only one side of the Syrian conflict without necessary verification, the Russian OPCW representative, Aleksandr Shulgin, told RT.

“The conclusions of this report are based on questionable data provided primarily by all kinds of the Syrian armed opposition groups and NGOs, including the infamous White Helmets,” Shulgin said, referring to the report of the fact-finding mission (FFM) reviewed by the UN’s chemical weapons watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), on Thursday.

The Russian representative drew attention to the fact that the report itself repeatedly says that the FFM investigative team decided not to visit the incident scene due to “security factors” and was thus unable to gather the necessary material evidence directly on the spot.

The team then had to rely on evidence provided by “various NGOs” that were working on the scene and testimonies of the alleged attack victims as well as those of the medical specialists, who treated the victims in “one of the neighboring countries.”

READ MORE: US slams Damascus as chemical weapons monitor says sarin used in April Syria attack, silent on blame

The report further says that the team was unable to implement the chain of custody for the samples they obtained from third parties, despite the fact that it is a standard basic procedure for such types of investigation, Shulgin noted.

The FFM report seen by RT indeed says that “the team was unable to implement a complete chain of custody, by the team, for samples from source.” Shulgin explained that the lack of the full chain of custody makes such evidence questionable, as its source cannot be verified with certainty.

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Moscow warns Washington against ‘incendiary, provocative action’ in Syria

Moscow has warned the US against taking unilateral action in Syria, as there is no threat from the Syrian military, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said. The statement comes after the US accused Syria of preparing for a chemical attack, without giving any evidence.

Asked if Russia had warned the US administration against any unilateral action in Syria, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, replied that Russian officials have “always spoken about that, including in relation to their [US] latest strikes on Syrian armed forces.”

“We believe that it’s unacceptable and breaches Syria’s sovereignty, isn’t caused by any military need, and there is no threat to the US specialists from the Syrian Army. So it’s incendiary, provocative action,” Gatilov said, as cited by RIA Novosti.

 

US Defense Secretary James Mattis © Aaron P. Bernstein

On Monday evening, the White House claimed that Syrian President Bashar Assad was preparing a chemical attack and warned that the Syrian government would “pay a heavy price” if the attack was carried out, as cited by AP.

Hours later, the Pentagon said it had detected activity by the Syrian authorities in preparation for the attack. Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis said that the US had seen “activity” at Shayrat airfield that showed “active preparations for chemical weapons use.”

The US government failed to provide any further details or proof of such claims, while the State Department’s spokesperson, Heather Nauert, said it was “an intelligence matter.”

When confronted by a journalist that Washington uses the phrase to justify anything that suits it, Nauert answered: “I’m not going to get into that one with you, but this is a very serious and great matter.”

On Wednesday, though, the US suggested that the Syrian leadership had swiftly changed its mind about planning an alleged attack. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, as cited by Reuters, said: “it appears that they [Syria’s authorities] took the warning seriously. They didn’t do it.”

The Syrian government, as well as Russian authorities, have denied any allegations against them, with Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying that "such threats to Syria's legitimate leaders are unacceptable."

In the latest statement, Deputy Foreign Minister Gatilov said that Russia doesn’t rule out that “there may be provocations” following the announcement from Washington.

 

 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson © Sergey Guneev

The statements by the US administration complicate the [peace] negotiations in Astana and Geneva, and Moscow believes such attempts to boost the tensions around Syria are unacceptable.

"The statements on Syrian armed forces getting ready to use chemical weapons is complete nonsense… These assumptions aren’t based on anything, no one provides any facts," the Russian diplomat said.

"If the aim is to ramp up the spiral of tension, we think it’s unacceptable. It complicates the process of negotiations undertaken in Astana and Geneva," Gatilov underlined.

“We’ve seen this in the past. Of course there are many ill-wishers, who want to undermine the process [of negotiations]. So any provocations are possible,” the deputy foreign minister added.

Earlier, Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued another official statement, saying: “We consider all these insinuations about chemical weapons which are being carried out in the worst traditions of the 2003 NATO intervention in Iraq as an ‘invitation’ for terrorists, extremists, and the armed opposition in Syria to carry out another large-scale provocation, which will result in the ‘unavoidable punishment’ of President Assad, according to Washington’s plans.”

In April, US President Donald Trump launched an attack on Syria with 59 Tomahawk missiles, which targeted Shayrat Airbase near the city of Homs. The strike was in response to what the US claimed was a chemical weapons attack in Khan Shaykhun, orchestrated by Syria’s government – something Damascus repeatedly denied.

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Syria Rejects French Government's Accusations on Chemical Attack

Damascus, Apr 27 (Prensa Latina) Syria has described the recent statements by French Foreign Minister, Jean Marc Ayrault, about the alleged chemical attack in the town of Kahn Sheikun, Idleb province, as a ''rabid campaign of misinformation and lies''.

'The accusations made by the French government represent a flagrant aggression and violation of the powers of international organizations, in an attempt to hide the truth of that crime and those behind it,' a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Ministry said.

'The French government has no legal jurisdiction nor the competence to determine what happened in Khan Shaikhun and draw conclusions,' and even that country is involved in that crime and its objection is shown to a draft resolution proposed by Russia and Iran to form a neutral and professional committee to investigate alleged attacks,' the statement said.

'Western countries resort to lying, deceit and disinformation to carry out their policies aimed at dominating the world and returning to the times of colonialism, mandate and fiduciary administration. What happened in Khan Shaikhun comes in the framework of the conspiracy project against Syria to raise the collapsed moral of the armed terrorist groups after their successive defeats at the hands of the Syrian army, the statement states.

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CNN uses anonymous source to push Syria/Russia 'chemical attack' conspiracy

An anonymous senior US official told CNN that, while the US allegedly has proof that Damascus is responsible for the chemical incident in Idlib, Syria, it has uncovered no such evidence implicating Moscow, because Russia is wilier in scrambling its communications.

The anonymous official reportedly told the American news channel that the US intelligence community had intercepted communications “featuring Syrian military and chemical experts talking about preparations for the sarin attack in Idlib last week.” While the source failed to provide any concrete details about the alleged communication – such when it was intercepted or what names or other information it contained – they did note that the US “did not know prior to the attack it was going to happen.”

 
Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. © Ammar Abdullah

CNN speculated that the communication had been sent prior to the incident, but was not processed until the US began investigating it.

The source added that “there are no intelligence intercepts that have been found directly confirming that Russian military or intelligence officials communicated about the attack,” but noted “the likelihood is the Russians are more careful in their communications to avoid being intercepted.”

The most specific proof the source could come up with was his observation that Russia has a surveillance drone, which he claimed “flew over the hospital that was treating people injured in the attack.”

CNN suggested that even if the US had evidence of Russia’s involvement, it might not go public with it, as “the US feels right now that it has made the case that Russian support for [Syrian President Bashar] Assad must end.”

The report is the latest in a long series based on anonymous sources – with undisclosed agendas citing vague evidence which is never submitted to public scrutiny – that the mainstream media has deployed to level accusations against Russia. The story that Russia allegedly meddled in the US election has become a dominant narrative for opponents of Donald Trump, who are still trying to explain his surprise victory.

The major media outlets’ eagerness to blame Russia for everything occasionally leads to embarrassment, however. A fairly spectacular example came in January, when the Washington Post was forced to backtrack on a story that falsely claimed Russia had hacked into Vermont’s power grid. The newspaper also sparked outrage in December by touting a list of “Russian propaganda” websites, which turned out to include many respected independent media sources.

The alarming trend is not limited to the US media, however. Last year, the Guardian failed to accurately report on an Italian newspaper’s interview with Julian Assange. The British newspaper falsely painted WikiLeaks’ founder as a Trump supporter who would not criticize Moscow because he was presumably in league with the Russian government.

Some examples go back years. In 2014, the New York Times published photos of armed men, claiming that they were Russian troops on a clandestine mission in Ukraine. The newspaper had taken the images from the US State Department, and both had failed to properly verify them.

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Trump Very Likely Profited From Syria Attack — Here’s How

U.S. President Donald Trump owns stocks in Raytheon, the weapons manufacturing corporation that produced the Tomahawk missiles used in the attack.

When U.S. President Donald Trump announced missile strikes against the Shayrat Syrian airbase last Thursday, he alleged that the attack was in the country’s “vital national security interest.”

RELATED: Trump's 'Beautiful' Syria Airstrike and What It Means

Claiming to support Syrian lives, he also said the attack “would prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”

What Trump conveniently forgot to mention, however, is that he may have profited handsomely from the missile strikes he ordered, which left up to 15 people dead.

Trump owns stocks in Raytheon, the weapons manufacturing corporation that produced the Tomahawk missiles used in the attack, Raw Story reports. His 2015 financial disclosure report filed with the Federal Election Commission revealed that his stock portfolio includes investments in defense firms, with Raytheon leading the charge. 

The company, worth almost US$30 billion, has seen its stocks surge since the attack. The attack itself also raked in millions for the company, given that the 59 Tomahawk missiles used cost taxpayers an estimated US$1.4 million apiece, Democracy Now reports. 

Although Trump’s reported Raytheon stocks are valued between US$1,000 to US$15,000, some believe he could have deeper financial ties to the wealthy defense corporation.

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“Of course, as with all things Trump, there’s a black box here, because he’s not reporting his tax returns, he hasn’t done a blind trust,” Center for International Policy official William Hartung told Democracy Now. 

“Virtually anything he does, not just in the military sphere, could benefit him, his family, his inner circle financially.”

RELATED: How 'Anti-Trump' Liberal Media Cheered Syria Attack

Trump justified the missile strikes by claiming Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was allegedly responsible for the chemical weapons attack two days prior that killed upwards of 70 people. His administration, however, has not presented any evidence of al-Assad’s complicity. 

Moreover, the destruction of the Shayrat Syrian airbase has made it increasingly difficult for experts to carry out an independent investigation of the chemical weapons attack.

Organizations like Raytheon that form the broader military-industrial complex have frequently served as cheerleaders of war, since the U.S. government contracts those companies to produce weapons. 

The 192 cruise missiles that were used to bomb Libya in 2011, for example, made the company over US$290 million alone.

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Idlib ‘chemical attack’ was false flag to set Assad up, more may come – Putin

Russia has information of a potential incident similar to the alleged chemical attack in Idlib province, possibly targeting a Damascus suburb, President Vladimir Putin said. The goal is to discredit the government of Syrian President Assad, he added.

“We have reports from multiple sources that false flags like this one – and I cannot call it otherwise – are being prepared in other parts of Syria, including the southern suburbs of Damascus. They plan to plant some chemical there and accuse the Syrian government of an attack,” he said at a joint press conference with Italian President Sergio Mattarella in Moscow.

Damascus denied the allegations, noting that the targeted area may have been hosting chemical weapons stockpiles belonging to Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) or Al-Nusra Front jihadists.

The incident has not been properly investigated as yet, but the US fired dozens of cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase in a demonstration of force over what it labeled a chemical attack by Damascus.

“President Mattarella and I discussed it, and I told him that this reminds me strongly of the events in 2003, when the US representatives demonstrated at the UN Security Council session the presumed chemical weapons found in Iraq. The military campaign was subsequently launched in Iraq and it ended with the devastation of the country, the growth of the terrorist threat and the appearance of Islamic State [IS, formerly ISIS] on the world stage,” he added.

It was the first time the US had targeted Syrian troops deliberately. The White House says it will repeat military action in response to any possible new chemical weapon attacks.

“The sight of people being gassed and blown away by barrel bombs ensures that if we see this kind of action again, we hold open the possibility of future action,” spokesman Sean Spicer said Monday.

Putin reiterated the call to properly investigate what happened in Khan Sheikhoun, saying that the alleged use of chemical weapons demands one.

“We are planning to address the corresponding UN structure in The Hague and call on the international community to thoroughly investigate all those reports and take appropriate action based on the results of such a probe,” he said.

A separate report of a potential false flag operation in Syria came from the Russian General Staff, which said militants were transporting toxic agents into several parts of Syria, including Eastern Ghouta, the site of the 2013 chemical weapons incident.

“These actions are aimed at creating a new pretext for accusing the government of Syria of more chemical weapons attacks and provoking more strikes by the US,” said Colonel General Sergey Rudskoy, the head of Operations.

cal weapons found in Iraq. The military campaign was subsequently launched in Iraq and it ended with the devastation of the country, the growth of the terrorist threat and the appearance of Islamic State [IS, formerly ISIS] on the world stage,” he added.

 

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Syria denies & condemns use of chemical weapons – foreign minister

Syria’s foreign minister has dismissed allegations that the Syrian Army had deployed chemical weapons in the city of Idlib, saying the military will never use such weapons against its own people or even terrorists.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem denied claims that the military used chemical weapons in the western city of Idlib. Speaking at a news conference on Thursday, Muallem said an airstrike by Syrian military had targeted an arms depot where chemical weapons stockpiles were stored by Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) and Al-Nusra Front militants.

He said it’s impossible that the army – which has been making significant gains in almost all theaters of the Syrian war – would use banned chemical weapons against its “own people” and even terrorists.

 
Foreign Ministers and officials pose for a group photo as they take part in an international conference on the future of Syria and the region, in Brussels, Belgium, April 5, 2017. © Yves Herman

Asked if Damascus would allow a fact-finding mission into the Idlib incident, Muallem said past experience of similar investigations was “not encouraging.” He also said that he could not predict “the reality of US intentions” in Syria.

Muallem added that such a mission must not be politicized and must start its operations “from Damascus, not Turkey,” apparently referring to the latest statements by Ankara condemning the incident, as well as the fact that some victims were taken to Turkey for autopsy.

'Monstrous crime'

Meanwhile, Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for the Russian president, said the Kremlin believes the Syrian military will do its utmost to prevent chemical agents from falling into the hands of terrorists.

“This was indeed a dangerous and monstrous crime, but in our opinion, it would be wrong to point fingers,” Peskov told reporters on Thursday. The Kremlin spokesman said Moscow does not agree with assessments provided by certain Western countries.

“Immediately after the tragedy no one had access to this area, so no one could have hard verifiable data. Consequently, any information which the US side or our colleagues from other countries might have had access to, could not be based on objective facts,” Peskov told reporters.

Though Peskov rejected “hasty assessments” of the alleged use of chemical weapons, he emphasized that there are always disagreements between Moscow and Washington, but mutual discords over the Idlib incident are unlikely to affect “the spirit of our cooperation.”

READ MORE: Rebels ‘only people who benefited’ from Idlib chemical weapons attack – analyst

Earlier in the day, the Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed as “unsubstantiated” statements by US Vice-President Mike Pence that Moscow and Damascus had failed to fulfill their obligations under a landmark 2013 deal to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons arsenals.

“I wouldn’t use profane language, especially when it comes to the second-most powerful man in the US administration, but I do believe that this is ignorance rather than irresponsibility,” Mikhail Ulyanov, head of the ministry’s Arms Control Department, said.

“The new administration has only recently begun reviewing its policy. Once that’s done, American officials’ statements, I hope, will become more accurate. There is no reason to say the US-Russia agreements [on eliminations Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles] did not work,” Ulyanov stated.

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Russia to continue Syria military op in support of Assad after ‘chemical attack’ claims – Kremlin

Moscow will continue to support Syrian Army troops in their anti-terrorism effort, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, after being asked whether Russian policy had changed following a reported chemical attack in the Idlib province.

Peskov cited the opinion of the Russian military, which said the contamination may have been caused by damage to a rebel chemical weapons storage site.

 
Syrian children receive treatment following a suspected gas attack in Khan Sheikhun, Idlib province. April 4, 2017. © Mohamed Al-Bakour

“You have heard the statement from the Russian Defense Ministry and I have nothing to add to the facts they stated. The Russian Federation and its military are continuing the operation to support the anti-terrorism operation and liberation of the country, which is being conducted by the Syrian armed forces,” Peskov said.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova suggested later on Wednesday that the Security Council should urge the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to launch a fact-finding mission, provided that full access to the incident site is allowed.

“It is crucial to call upon an OPCW fact-finding mission in charge of investigating the use of chemical weapons in Syria to collect evidence of the incident under the following condition – the composition of the fact-finding mission will be submitted to the UN Security Council for approval, and it will be balanced in terms of geographical [representation],” Zakharova said, according to Interfax.

The acting Russian envoy to the UN will voice this position during an emergency meeting of the Security Council on Wednesday, which was called following the chemical incident, Peskov added.

 
Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017 © Ammar Abdullah

At least 70 people, including 11 children, have been reported killed in the town of Khan Sheikhoun after a suspected chemical weapons attack on Tuesday morning. Rebels accused the Syrian government of bombing the town with chemical munitions.

The accusations have been backed by a number of Western governments.

Staffan de Mistura, UN special envoy for Syria, said reliable evidence would be needed to confirm the alleged use of chemical weapons, let alone establish who was responsible for it.

“We have no yet any official or reliable confirmation,” he said on Wednesday. “We will be stimulating all those who have the capacity of finding out technically what had happened.”

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini also said there was no evidence yet to draw any conclusion on what had happened in the Idlib governorate, but stated that the Syrian government held “primary responsibility” for the situation.

 
US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley © Mike Segar

Amid the public condemnation of Damascus for the attack and Moscow and Tehran for their support of the Syrian government, some experts pointed out that the Syrian Army had no rational reason for using chemical weapons against rebels in Idlib.

Iran, an ally of Damascus, condemned on Wednesday any use of chemical weapons and offered help to the victims.

“We are ready to bring the victims to Iran and help them,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said, as quoted by Tasnim news agency.

Earlier Turkey, an opponent and frequent critic of Damascus, reported treating dozens of victims of the alleged attack in hospitals located in the border province of Hatay, AP said.

The incident in Khan Sheikhoun happened days after Washington stated that ousting Syrian President Bashar Assad was no longer a priority for the US. The “Assad must go” premise was one of the cornerstones of Washington’s Syrian policy under Barack Obama. The Trump administration has been dismantling many of Obama’s policies.

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