The UK has denounced as “a blatant lie” Russian claims that the country’s intelligence services were responsible for staging “the fake chemical weapons attack” in Douma, Syria, as a pretext for launching a possible wider military assault on the Syrian regime forces.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said he had obtained documentary evidence that showed that “special services of a country, which is now seeking to be in the first ranks of the Russophobic campaign, were involved in this staged event”. The UK Foreign Office said the claims were preposterous.
Alexander Yakovenko, the Russian ambassador to London, told reporters the UK-funded Syrian civil defence forces, the White Helmets, were responsible for staging fake chemical attacks by the Syrian army in an attempt to mislead the world. Igor Konashenkov, a Russian defence ministry spokesman, went further saying: “We have … evidence that proves Britain was directly involved in organising this provocation.”
He said Russia had proof that London put pressure on the White Helmets to stage the attack. The White Helmets is a humanitarian organisation made up of 3,400 volunteers who rescue civilians from the rubble after airstrikes.
Karen Pierce, Britain’s ambassador to the UN, described the claims as “grotesque, bizarre and a blatant lie”. She added: “I want to state categorically … that Britain has no involvement and would never have any involvement in the use of a chemical weapon.”
A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “Russia has wielded its UN security council veto six times since February 2017 to shield the Assad regime from scrutiny for its use of chemical weapons. These accusations from Moscow are just the latest in a number of ludicrous allegations from Russia, who have also said that no attack ever happened.
“This simply shows their desperation to pin the blame on anyone but their client: the Assad regime. The chemical weapons attack in Douma last Saturday was a shocking and barbaric act that cost up to 75 lives including young children.”
The allegations plunged the two countries’ intelligence agencies into yet more conflict, and came as the first tranche of a UN weapons inspectors fact-finding mission arrived in Damascus to see whether evidence remained to prove a chemical weapons attack had occurred on 7 April, as photographs, blood samples and accounts from witnesses have shown. The inspectors are expected to be given access to Douma on Saturday.
António Guterres, the UN secretary general, insisted the inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) must be given full and unfettered access to witnesses and buildings. He warned that if no peaceful solution was found there was still “a severe danger of a full blow confrontation spiralling out of control”.
Russia, in conjunction with the forces of the Syrian president, Bashar-al Assad, is in charge of the Douma area. Moscow has said its own inquiries have revealed no evidence of a chemical weapon attack.
At another highly charged session of the UN security council on Friday, Russia’s Vassily Nebenzia repeated the claim that Moscow had clear evidence the attack was staged. Nikki Hayley, his US counterpart, said she was “in awe” that Nebenzia could make such claims “with a straight face”.
Haley said Donald Trump had made no decision on the use of force to punish Syria for its breach of all international norms, but added: “No one was buying Russia’s coverups and lies.”
She told fellow UN diplomats that the Syrian government was known by the US to have used chemical weapons 50 times, saying all nations and all people would be harmed by the normalisation of their use.
Pressed outside the UN chamber on when the US would decide whether to launch a military strike, Haley said: “You don’t rush decisions like this.” She added that if there was haste, “you make a mistake”.
On Thursday Trump called Theresa May, the UK prime minister, and the two agreed “it was vital that the use of chemical weapons did not go unchallenged”. But the US delay in taking action appears to be caused by divisions between the White House and Jim Mattis, the US defence secretary, on the viable targets that could be struck in an effort to wipe out Syria’s alleged chemical weapons stores and factories.
The hesitation in Washington has given Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish president, a chance to consult with Vladimir Putin to see whether they can construct a compromise that will avoid a military attack but still satisfy western demands that Russia stops protecting Assad’s breaches of the chemical weapons conventions.
Macron, who on Thursday said he had proof of use of chemical weapons by Syrian regime – also spoke about a potential peaceful solution on Friday. Macron’s office, describing a call with his Putin, said: “The president of the republic called for dialogue with Russia to be maintained and stepped up to bring peace and stability back to Syria”. Macron had previously described the chemical weapons attack as a “red line” for France that “would result in reprisal”.
But the glimmer of hope for diplomacy came alongside continued planning for a military assault. Britain’s military chiefs have been working on a range of scenarios over the last few days. The focuss of an attack would be on Syria’s alleged chemical weapons research and storage facilities.
Other targets under consideration by the Ministry of Defence, working in coordination with the US and France, include Syrian command and control centres as well as airbases, planes and helicopters.
An attack on Assad’s presidential palace in the hills above Damascus has been ruled out as a step too far. May will be challenged by MPs to spell out her military plans on Monday, if no weekend assault has been launched.
The planners are anxious to avoid destroying Russian equipment or killing Russian personnel based in Syria, potentially provoking a reaction from Moscow. They insist missiles and intelligence are better than in the 1991 Iraq war in which the Amiriyah bomb shelter was hit killing more than 400 civilians, or the Nato bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999.
A spokesperson for the French defence ministry, chiming with MoD partners, said Macron had specified there would be no targeting of Russians in Syria and the focus would be on Syria’s alleged chemical weapons capabilities.
A prime target is the Scientific Studies and Research Centre, west of Damascus, which the US has claimed has been involved in the preparation of chemical weapons.
Targets could include airbases where the chemical weapons are alleged to have been stored, as well as aircraft which have allegedly been used attacks.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, an expert who led the UK and Nato chemical weapons response teams, said it was highly unlikely that an attack on Syrian chemical facilities risked spreading the poison.
“The best way to destroy chemical weapons is to blow them up,” he said.