International chemical weapons experts will go to the Syrian town of Douma to investigate a suspected poison gas attack, their organisation said on Tuesday, as the United States and other Western powers consider military action over the incident.
US President Donald Trump, who had been due to travel to Peru on Friday, cancelled a trip to Latin America to focus on responding to the Syria incident, the White House said. Trump on Monday warned of a quick, forceful response once responsibility for the attack was established.
France and Britain also discussed with the Trump administration how to respond to the incident. Both stressed that the culprit in the incident still needed to be confirmed.
At least 60 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured in Saturday's suspected attack on Douma, then still occupied by rebel forces, according to a Syrian relief group.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government and its ally Russia have said there was no evidence a gas attack had taken place and that the claim was bogus.
The incident has thrust Syria's seven-year-old conflict back to the forefront of international concern and pitted Washington and Moscow against each other again.
Russia and the United States were headed for a showdown at the United Nations over how to respond to the Douma attack.
Aggravating the volatile situation in the region, Iran, Assad's other main ally, threatened to respond to an air strike on a Syrian military base on Monday that Tehran, Damascus and Moscow have blamed on Israel.
In Syria, thousands of militants and their families arrived in rebel-held parts of the country's northwest after surrendering Douma to government forces.
Their evacuation restored Assad's control over the eastern Ghouta, formerly the biggest rebel bastion near Damascus, and gave him his biggest battlefield victory since 2016, when he took back Aleppo.
Smell Of Gas
The Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said Syria had been asked to make the necessary arrangements for the deployment of an investigation team.
"The team is preparing to deploy to Syria shortly," it said in a statement.
The mission will aim to determine whether banned munitions were used, but will not assign blame. Doctors and witnesses have said victims showed symptoms of poisoning, possibly by a nerve agent, and reported the smell of chlorine gas.
The Assad government and Russia both urged the OPCW to investigate the allegations of chemical weapons use in Douma, a move apparently aimed at averting any US-led action.
"Syria is keen on cooperating with the OPCW to uncover the truth behind the allegations that some Western sides have been advertising to justify their aggressive intentions," Syria's state news agency SANA said.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said there was no threat of the situation in Syria resulting in a military clash between Russia and the United States. TASS news agency quoted him as saying he believed common sense would prevail.
Any US strike is likely to involve naval assets, given the risk to aircraft from Russian and Syrian air defence systems. A US Navy guided-missile destroyer, the USS Donald Cook, is in the Mediterranean.
French President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday that any strikes would not target the Syrian government's allies or anybody in particular, but would be aimed at the Syrian government's chemical facilities.
Speaking alongside Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Macron said a decision on whether to carry out military strikes would be made in the coming days after more consultations with the United States and Britain.
Last year, the United States launched strikes from two Navy destroyers against a Syrian air base.
A US action similar to last year's would likely not cause a shift in the direction of the war that has gone Assad's way since 2015.
A European source said European governments were waiting for the OPCW to carry out its investigation and for more solid forensic evidence from the attack to emerge. Any plan by the United States and its allies to take military action was likely to be on hold until then, the source said.
Trump met at the White House with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Trump gave no hints about potential U.S. action, but al-Thani told reporters, "We cannot tolerate, with a war criminal" like Assad.
The UN Security Council is due to vote on three draft resolutions on chemical weapons attacks in Syria on Tuesday, setting up a showdown between the United States and Russia.
The United States has requested the Security Council vote at 3 p.m. (1900 GMT) on a proposal for a new inquiry into chemical weapons in Syria. The resolution was likely to be blocked by Russia, which will put two draft resolutions on Syria of its own to a vote because it does not agree with the U.S. text, diplomats said.
"This is basically a diplomatic set-up," said Richard Gowan, a UN expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
"Russia will inevitably veto the US resolution criticising Assad, and Washington will use this to justify military strikes," he said. "A breakdown at the UN will also make it easier for France to justify strikes."
Russian UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia accused the United States, France and Britain of stoking international tensions by engaging in a "confrontational policy" against Russia and Syria.
France said it would respond if it was proven that Assad's forces carried out the attack.
A Russian warplane flew over a French warship at low altitude in the eastern Mediterranean this weekend, a deliberate breach of international regulations, a French naval source said on Tuesday.
The weekly magazine Le Point said the Russian plane had flown over the frigate Aquitaine and was fully armed. The Aquitaine is equipped with 16 cruise missiles and 16 surface-to-air missiles. It is currently operating off Lebanon alongside US ships as part of France's contingent fighting Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.
A previous inquiry by the United Nations and the OPCW found the Syrian government used the nerve agent sarin in an attack in 2017, and had also used chlorine several times as a weapon.
Despite the international revulsion over the chemical weapons attacks, the death toll from such incidents is in the dozens, a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of combatants and civilians killed since the war began in 2011.