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Syrian conflict

‘The cold war is back’: UN head warns Middle East is threat to global peace as Moscow fumes about Trump’s Tweets and claims UK staged gas attack

Meanwhile, international chemical weapons experts were travelling to the war-torn country to investigate an alleged gas attack by government forces on the town of Douma which killed dozens of people

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 April, 2018, 8:35pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 April, 2018, 9:16am

“The cold war is back – with a vengeance,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned on Friday as the US and Russia remained at loggerheads over Syria, with Russia now claiming that Britain “staged” a fake chemical attack in the town of Douma this week.

But the situation is worse now than in the 1960s because the safeguards that managed the risk of escalation in the past “no longer seem to be present”, Guterres warned.

The UN chief told an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council that was called on Friday by Russia that the Middle East is in so much “chaos” today that it has become a threat to international peace and security – and Syria “represents the most serious threat”.

His remarks came the same day that Moscow claimed the alleged chemical weapons attack - which has variously been attributed to Russia, Syrian President Bashir al-Assad and Iraq, or all of the above - was actually “staged and directed” by Britain.

The Kremlin also lashed out against US President Donald Trump over his fiery tweets promising “missiles” in exchange for the attack, which observers said claimed the lives of over 40 people, including children.

In his speech to the Security Council, Guterres added that the highly volatile situation risks “escalation, fragmentation and division as far as the eye can see, with profound regional and global ramifications.” 

As well as Syria, he also cited the Palestinian-Israeli divide, the Sunni-Shiite divide “evident from the Gulf to the Mediterranean” and other divisive factors reflected in a multiplicity of conflicts. 

But Guterres said Syria today is the most serious, and “there is no military solution to the conflict”.

In the wake of those remarks, the Russian military claimed that the attack on the Syrian down of Douma - which volunteer first responders and activists said had claimed over 40 people and appeared to have involved chlorine gas and Sarin - had been staged and directed by Britain. 

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Russian Defence Ministry spokesman, Major General Igor 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 and causing panic. The medics said none of the patients were hurt by chemicals. 

Konashenkov said Friday that Britain was “directly involved in the provocation”, but didn’t elaborate or provide evidence.

British UN Ambassador Karen Pierce called the claims “grotesque”, telling reporters: “It is a blatant lie, it is the worst piece of fake news we’ve yet seen from the Russian propaganda machine.”

The accusation echoes Russia’s allegation that the UK posioned a former Russian spy living in the UK last month - reversing Britain’s own claim that Moscow ordered the poisoning.

At the Security Council, French UN Ambassador Francois Delattre said on Friday that “In deciding to once again use chemical weapons”, the Syrian government “has reached a point of no return”.

She he demanded that the world offer a “robust, united and steadfast response”, and said that “France will shoulder its responsibility to end an intolerable threat to our collective security.”

 After Guterres’ remarks to the Security Council, the Russian ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, told the group that the United States, France and Britain were not interested in the chemical attack, only in ousting Assad’s government and containing Russia. 

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“We continue to observe dangerous military preparations for an illegal act of force against a sovereign state in what would constitute a breach of international law,” he said. “We call on the leadership of these states to immediately reconsider.” 

“The sole thing they have an interest in is to oust the Syrian government and more broadly to contain the Russian Federation,” he said.

Those complaints followed anger from Moscow on Friday over Trump’s unpredictable Twitter tirades – including one two days ago in which he warned that missiles “will be coming” in response to the chemical attack.

Russia, allies Assad, were eager on Friday to lay blame for the crisis not with him but with Trump. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said international relations should not depend on one person’s morning mood, in apparent reference to Trump’s tweets.

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“We cannot depend on what someone on the other side of the ocean takes into his head in the morning. We cannot take such risks,” said Dvorkovich, speaking at a forum.

Russia has warned the West against attacking Assad, who is also supported by Iran, and says there is no evidence of a chemical attack in Douma, a town near Damascus which had been held by rebels until this month.

International chemical weapons experts based out of the Netherlands are travelling to Syria to investigate the attack, in which dozens – including children – died, reportedly due to a combination of chlorine gas and the nerve gas Sarin.

Also on Friday, Nebenzia told reporters that he “cannot exclude” the possibility of war between the United States and Russia.

“The immediate priority is to avert the danger of war,” he told reporters. “We hope there will be no point of no return.”

Sheikh Naim Qassem, deputy leader of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, told Lebanese daily al-Joumhouria: “The conditions do not point to a total war happening … unless Trump and [Israeli leader Benjamin] Netanyahu completely lose their minds.”

US allies have offered strong words of support for Washington but no clear military plans have yet emerged.

British Prime Minister Theresa May won backing from her senior ministers on Thursday to take unspecified action with the United States and France to deter further use of chemical weapons by Syria.

Trump was also expected to speak with French President Emmanuel Macron, who said on Thursday France had proof the Syrian government carried out the Douma attack and would decide whether to strike back when all necessary information had been gathered.

Trump himself appeared on Thursday to cast doubt on at least the timing of any US-led military action, tweeting: “Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!”

He met his national security team on the situation in Syria later in the day and “no final decision has been made,” the White House said in a statement.

“We are continuing to assess intelligence and are engaged in conversations with our partners and allies,” it said.

A team of experts from the global chemical weapons watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, was travelling to Syria and will start its investigations into the Douma incident on Saturday, the Netherlands-based agency said.

The capture of Douma has clinched a major victory for Assad, crushing what was once a centre of the insurgency near Damascus, and underlines his unassailable position in the war.

He has cemented his control over most of the western, more heavily populated, part of the country, with rebels and jihadist insurgents largely contained to two areas on Syria’s northern and southern borders.

They still control the northwestern province of Idlib, near Turkey, and a southern region around Deraa, on the border with Jordan. Turkish forces and rebel allies control territory in northern Syria, while US-backed Kurdish forces hold wide areas of the northeast, and pockets of Islamic State fighters remain.

But none of those any longer directly threaten Assad’s grip on power, which has been reinforced by Russian air power and Iran-backed fighters on the ground.