BEIRUT: A senior Russian diplomat said on Monday that the mission from the international chemical weapons watchdog cannot access the site of an alleged chemical attack near the Syrian capital without an appropriate U.N. permit.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov's remarks could indicate a possible attempt to bog down the team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, though both Russia and the Syrian government have welcomed the OPCW visit in the wake of the West's airstrikes in Syria over the weekend.
Ryabkov told reporters in Moscow that what is hampering a speedy resolution of the mission's visit to the Syrian town of Douma, affected by the alleged chemical attack, was "the consequences of the illegal, unlawful military action," a reference to the punitive airstrikes.
A team from the OPCW arrived in Syria shortly before the airstrikes early Saturday. It has met with Syrian officials but has not visited the town at the center of the controversy. Government forces and Russian troops have deployed in Douma, which has now fallen under the control of the Syrian government.
"It is the lack of approval by the U.N. Department for Safety and Security for OPCW experts to visit the site in Douma that is the problem," Ryabkov told reporters, adding that he checked just a short while ago what was delaying their visit.
Russia said it is not curtailing the mission's visit, and appears instead to be blaming the international organization for the delay. But Syrian opposition and activists have criticized the Russia deployment in the town, saying that evidence of chemical weapons' use might no longer be found. Russia and Syria deny the attack took place.
The Kremlin quickly denied reports that Russia was not allowing the OPCW mission in, without elaborating.
"As far as I understand what is hampering a speedy resolution of this problem is the consequences of the illegal, unlawful military action that Great Britain and other countries conducted on Saturday," said Ryabkov.
The OPCW is holding an emergency meeting on Monday in The Hague to discuss the suspected chemical attack in Douma.
Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said earlier that his country is "fully ready" to cooperate with the fact-finding mission. He said government officials have met with the delegation, which has been in Damascus for three days, a number of times to discuss cooperation.
Syria has in the past accused the West of politically manipulating the OPCW mission.
At least 40 people are believed to have died in the attack on Douma, until the weekend the last rebel-held town outside the Syrian capital. The OPCW fact-finding team dispatched to Syria to investigate does not have a mandate to assign blame.
Russia vetoed last year the extension of the mandate of another joint U.N.-OPCW joint body in charge of determining who was behind chemical other weapons attacks in Syria. The joint body was created in 2015 and found the Syrian government responsible for a sarin gas attack on Khan Shaykhoun, a rebel-held area in northern Syria last year.
Meanwhile, NATO's secretary general said the weekend's U.S.-led strikes will reduce the Syrian government's capabilities of carrying out new chemical attacks.
Jens Stoltenberg said the strikes were a "clear message" to Syrian President Bashar Assad, to Russia and Iran that the use of chemical weapons is not acceptable and that the allies would not stand by and watch. Stoltenberg spoke in an interview with Turkey's NTV television on Monday.
In Damascus, hundreds of Syrians gathered on Monday in a landmark square Damascus, rallying in support of their armed forces, which they say succeeded in confronting the airstrikes by the West.
State TV broadcast the rally live from the central Omayyad Square. Protesters waved Syrian flags at the demonstration, dubbed a "salute to the achievements of the Arab Syrian Army," set off fireworks and unleashed celebratory gunfire.
Shouts of "Allah, Syria, and only Bashar," a reference to Assad, rang out.
The strikes have ratcheted up international tension, as the United States and Russia exchanged threats of retaliation. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has indicated new economic sanctions will be announced Monday against Russia for enabling Assad's government to continue using chemical weapons.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said the military strikes violated the U.N. Charter and that if they continue, "it will inevitably entail chaos in international relations," according to a Kremlin statement on Sunday.
Douma was the last rebel holdout in the eastern Ghouta enclave, which was the target of a government offensive in February and March that killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands of people.
Syrian media, Russian and Syrian officials have sought to downplay the impact of the joint airstrikes, saying the Syrian air defenses have intercepted most of the missiles. The Pentagon says no missiles were engaged.
Also Monday, British Prime Minister Theresa May was to face angry lawmakers for authorizing the strikes without a vote in Parliament. Her office said she planned to tell them the strikes were "in Britain's national interest" and were carried out to stop further suffering from chemical weapons attacks.