Syrian state media are reporting that experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have entered the Syrian town of Douma, the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack that has deepened tension between Russia and the West.
State TV and the state-run news agency SANA said that a team from the global chemical weapons watchdog entered Douma on April 17, after recriminations between Western governments on one side and Syria and Russia on the other about access to the site outside Damascus added to tensions that have increased in the wake of the suspected attack.
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 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 in the day, 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 head 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, near Damascus. The World Health Organization has said 43 people who died suffered "symptoms consistent with exposure to highly toxic chemicals."
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 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 have backed opponents seeking Assad's ouster, while Russia has given him crucial military and diplomatic support throughout the seven-year war that 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 years-long bloody conflict," Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement. "Possibilities on this were discussed."
French President Emmanuel Macron admitted 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.