White House mulls fresh Russia sanctions as it accuses Kremlin of preventing inspectors from accessing site of alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria
A decision will be made on possible sanctions ‘in the near future’, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said
America is expected to place sanctions on Russia on Monday in retaliation for Moscow’s support of Syria’s chemical weapons programme – but White House officials have cautioned that no decision has yet been taken.
“We are considering additional sanctions on Russia and a decision will be made in the near future,” said press secretary Sarah Sanders. “We are evaluating but nothing to announce right now,” she said.
Also on Monday, Western countries accused Moscow on Monday of preventing inspectors from reaching the site of a suspected poison gas attack in Syria and said Russians or Syrians may have tampered with evidence on the ground.
On Sunday, US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said new sanctions would be announced on Monday by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
Haley said the measures would target companies that supplied Damascus with equipment and other material related to chemical weapons, which killed more than 40 people in Douma on April 7 and prompted US-led air strikes.
“With the political and diplomatic actions that we’re taking now, we wanted their friends Iran and Russia to know that we meant business and that they were going to be feeling the pain from this as well,” she said.
It is not clear what has caused the apparent delay, but sanctions decisions are usually weeks if not months in the making.
The United States and European allies had discussed a sanctions package in the build up to last week’s strikes against targets in Syria, with the American measures said to be further along in the planning process than Europe – where consensus among member states is needed.
Adding to the complication is the lack of a Secretary of State after Rex Tillerson’s departure, as well as President Donald Trump’s desire to improve relations with Russia.
A Washington Post report suggested Trump had been furious with aides over the recent decision to expel 60 Russian diplomats, believing each European country – rather than Europe as a whole – would match that figure.
The White House said that despite events in Syria and the poisoning of a spy on British soil, Trump still wanted to sit down with Putin.
“The president has been clear that he’s going to be tough on Russia, but at the same time he’d still like to have a good relationship with them,” Sanders said.
“The president would still like to sit down with him, he feels like it’s better for the world if they have a good relationship.”
“But that’s going to depend on the actions of Russia. We’ve been very clear in our actions what we expect and we hope they’ll have a change in their behaviour.”
Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) went to Syria last week to inspect the Douma site but have yet to gain access to the town, which is now under government control after the rebels withdrew.
“It is our understanding the Russians may have visited the attack site,” US Ambassador Kenneth Ward said at a meeting of the OPCW in The Hague on Monday. “It is our concern that they may have tampered with it with the intent of thwarting the efforts of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission to conduct an effective investigation.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied that Moscow had interfered with any evidence: “I can guarantee that Russia has not tampered with the site,” he told the BBC in an interview.
On Monday the OPCW’s Ahmet Uzumcu said that its team had not yet been deployed to Douma - despite originally intending to arrive over the weekend.
Russian and Syrian officials “have informed the... team that there were still pending security issues to be worked out before any deployment could take place,” he said.
The inspectors aim to collect samples, interview witnesses and document evidence to determine whether banned toxic munitions were used, although they are not permitted to assign blame for the attack.
Earlier, Britain’s delegation to the OPCW accused Russia and the Syrian government of preventing the international watchdog’s inspectors from reaching Douma.
“Unfettered access is essential,” the British delegation said in a statement. “Russia and Syria must cooperate.”
Moscow blamed the delay on the Western air strikes. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the British accusation that Russia was to blame for holding up the inspections was “groundless”.
“We called for an objective investigation. This was at the very beginning after this information [of the attack] appeared. Therefore allegations of this towards Russia are groundless,” Peskov said.
Witnesses and Western governments say helicopters dropped chemical bombs that killed many children and women hiding in cellars from bombardment. Washington has said it has conclusive evidence the attack used chlorine gas, and suspects sarin nerve agent was also used although this was not confirmed.
Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons arsenal in 2013 and submit to OPCW inspections to avert US retaliation after a suspected nerve gas attack in Douma killed hundreds of people.
It is barred from having, storing or using nerve agents, and while it is permitted to possess chlorine for civilian uses, is banned from using that chemical as a weapon.
The British envoy to the OPCW said the body had recorded 390 allegations of the use of banned chemicals in Syria since 2014, and that a failure by the OPCW to act risked allowing “further barbaric use of chemical weapons”.
US President Donald Trump has said the weekend air strikes accomplished their aim of undermining efforts by the Syrian government to produce and use chemical weapons.
Members of the 41-seat executive council of the OPCW were due to discuss the alleged use of prohibited toxins in Syria, but were not expected to reach any agreement about a response.
The organisation, which needs a two-thirds majority to take decisions, has been undermined by political divisions over the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government.
A joint United Nations-OPCW mission concluded that troops under President Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons several times in recent years, including a sarin attack a year ago in the town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed nearly 100 people.