The United States has proof that Syrian leader Bashar Assad’s regime launched a chemical weapons strike last weekend on the then rebel-held city of Douma, the State Department said Friday.
“I’m not going to say which day we absolutely knew that there was proof. The attack took place on Saturday, we know for a fact that it was a chemical weapon,” spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.
“We know that there are only certain countries like Syria that have delivery mechanisms and have those types of weapons.”
Asked whether she could say that the United States has proof that Assad’s regime was behind the strike, Nauert said: “Yes.”
International experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons were due in Syria over the weekend to inspect the site where dozens of civilians reportedly died in a gas attack.
But the OPCW is not mandated to ascribe blame to any party, simply to establish facts like the kind of agent that was used, how it was delivered and how many people it killed or wounded.
Nauert said that the US administration was not relying on the OPCW findings but had sources of its own.
She acknowledged that some commentators have asked why the United States has not made its “intelligence information” public if it has any, but said “a lot of this stuff is classified right now.”
The Russian Defense Ministry on Friday accused Britain of staging a fake chemical attack in Douma. Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said that images of victims of the purported attack were fakes staged with “Britain’s direct involvement,” without providing evidence.
White Helmets first-responder volunteers and activists claimed an alleged chemical attack on April 7 by the Syrian government killed over 40 people in the town of Douma. The allegations drew international outrage and prompted Washington and its allies to consider a military response. Moscow warned against any strikes and threatened to retaliate.
Konashenkov released statements by medics from Douma’s hospital, who said a group of people toting video cameras entered the hospital, shouting that its patients were struck with chemical weapons, dousing them with water and causing panic. The medics, however, said none of the patients had any symptoms of chemical poisoning, according to the statements.
Konashenkov said that “powerful pressure from London was exerted on representatives of the so-called White Helmets to quickly stage the premeditated provocation.” He added that the Russian military has proof of British involvement, but didn’t immediately present it.
The accusations followed an earlier statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who said that “intelligence agencies of a state that is now striving to spearhead a Russo-phobic campaign were involved in that fabrication.” He didn’t elaborate or name the state.
Last month Britain blamed Russia for a nerve agent attack on an ex-spy and his daughter, accusations Russia has vehemently denied.
As fears of a Russia confrontation with Western powers mount, French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his “deep concerns” over the situation in Syria in a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
According to a statement by the French presidency, Macron called for dialogue between France and Russia to “continue and intensify” to bring peace and stability to Syria. The Kremlin readout said that Putin warned against rushing to blame the Syrian government before conducting a “thorough and objective probe.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council called by Russia Friday that “there is no military solution to the conflict.” He said “the Cold War is back — with a vengeance but with a difference,” because safeguards that managed the risk of escalation in the past “no longer seem to be present.”
The US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said President Donald Trump “has not yet made a decision about possible actions in Syria.” She said of the alleged chemical attack that “Russia can complain all it wants about fake news, but no one is buying its lies and its cover-ups.”
Russia has been a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and has helped turn the tide of war in his favor since entering the conflict in September 2015. Syria’s civil war, which began as a popular uprising against Assad, is now in its eighth year.
On Thursday, Russia’s military said Douma has been brought under full control of the Syrian government under a Russia-mediated deal that secured the evacuation of the rebels and thousands of civilians after it was recaptured by Syrian forces. The government, however, said evacuations from Douma were ongoing and no Syrian government forces had entered the town.
Douma and the sprawling Eastern Ghouta region near the capital, Damascus, had been under rebel control since 2012 and was a thorn in the side of Assad’s government, threatening his seat of power with missiles and potential advances for years. The government’s capture of Douma, the last town held by the rebels in eastern Ghouta, marked a major victory for Assad.