By Anthony Deutsch
THE HAGUE (Reuters) - After blocking U.N. Security Council action against Syria, Russia has proposed changing the rules for inspectors at the world's chemical weapons body in The Hague, a move Western diplomats and experts said would undermine its work.
It is the latest confrontation between Russia, a close ally and military backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the West over an international inquiry established to determine who is behind ongoing chemical attacks in Syria's civil war.
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It came as Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Assad late on Monday for talks aimed at ending a conflict that has now raged for nearly seven years. [L8N1NR3VO]
At the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), a draft Russian-Iranian decision circulated among the 41 members of the body's executive council, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters, sought to overturn procedures on how OPCW inspectors work and how their findings are shared.
The proposal was to be discussed by the OPCW's decision-making executive council, which was meeting on Tuesday, but had little chance of obtaining sufficient support to pass.
Russia's ambassador to the OPCW, Alexander Shulgin, said in an interview that Moscow remained committed to the OPCW and efforts to prosecute perpetrators of attacks.
But Russia is "not convinced by some of the findings implicating the Syrian government," he said, defending the effort to change the mandate.
He also questioned the decision not to send OPCW inspectors to Khan Sheikhoun, where nearly 100 people were killed with sarin on April 4, "based on the pretext of the security conditions".
The head of the OPCW said at the time the team was not deployed to Khan Sheikhoun due to genuine security risks -- they were ambushed and shot at during investigations in 2013 and 2014. The team confirmed sarin poisoning by testing the blood of victims across the border in Turkey.
The Russian draft says the OPCW should withhold "findings that are not based on the results of on-site investigations", but experts said this was an attempt to scupper the investigations.
RUSSIA UNDER FIRE
"(Russia's) supreme goal is to compromise the ability of the (OPCW) fact-finding mission to do its job professionally and without political interference," said Gregory Koblentz, a non-proliferation expert at George Mason University, in the U.S. state of Virginia.
"This draft resolution has to be seen as part of a Russian strategy to undermine all international investigations into the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government," he said.
Last Friday, Moscow blocked a proposal to extend the mandate of a joint investigation by the United Nations and the OPCW, saying it was seriously flawed.
Under a 2013 U.S.-Russian deal, Assad agreed to hand over his toxic stockpile following a sarin attack in a Damascus suburb. Dozens of countries helped to remove and destroy the lethal chemicals, but attacks have continued.
Investigators have already concluded that Syrian government forces were behind later attacks with nerve-agent sarin and chlorine barrel bombs, while Islamic State militants had used sulfur mustard gas. Syria denied using chemical weapons.
Sweden and Uruguay are pushing for the U.N. Security Council to revive an international inquiry, but without the support of Russia, which holds a veto, there can be no further U.N.-backed inquiries.
(Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Editing by Gareth Jones)