THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- Russia and the West are braced for a fresh showdown at the world's chemical weapons watchdog this week over a new team that will name culprits for attacks in Syria for the first time.
The investigators' first report identifying perpetrators is expected early next year, and tensions are already rising at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
Moscow is threatening to block next year's budget for the OPCW at the annual meeting in The Hague if it includes funding for the new team, which could effectively shut down the watchdog.
But the United States, Britain, France and other allies say they have enough support for it to pass with a large majority.
Russia, Iran and China led efforts to block the budget last year, but it passed by a majority of 99-27.
Western diplomats hope to improve on that figure this year to show international support for the OPCW. A vote is expected on Wednesday (November 27).
"Everyone is waiting for the IIT (Investigation and Identification Team) results," a senior diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Chemical weapons confirmed
Despite fierce objections from Syria and its allies, OPCW member states agreed in 2018 to give the organisation new powers to pin blame on culprits for the use of toxic arms.
Previously the watchdog -- which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 and has eliminated 97% of the world's chemical weapons -- had a mandate only to say whether an attack had occurred.
The change was prompted by a series of chemical attacks in Syria -- carried out despite Damascus agreeing to hand over its chemical arsenal in 2013 following a suspected sarin gas bombardment that killed 1,400 in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.
In March, an OPCW report confirmed chlorine was used against the rebel-held town of Douma, Syria, on April 7, 2018, which witnesses said killed 43 people.
Most of the international community blamed the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the incident and unleashed air strikes on military installations in response.
Russia, which backs al-Assad and has attempted to help cover up uses of chemical weapons, rejected the OPCW report and said the atrocity was "staged" by Syrian rescue volunteers, known as "White Helmets".
The "Douma incident is no more than 'White helmets' staged provocation", the Russian Embassy in The Hague tweeted after the release of the OPCW report.
However, OPCW chief Fernando Arias Monday (November 25) defended that report from criticism, saying, "I would like to reiterate that I stand by the independent, professional conclusion."
A team of OPCW inspectors took more than 100 samples from seven sites in Douma when they gained access to the town after several weeks of stonewalling by Russia and Syria.
The OPCW reached its conclusions based on "witnesses' testimonies, environmental and biomedical samples analysis results as well as toxicological and ballistic analyses from experts", said the OPCW.
Russia, Syria muddying the waters
Moscow has consistently raised doubts over chemical attacks in Syria or insisted they were staged and has recently highlighted a leaked report raising questions about the deadly chlorine attack in Douma.
Russians and Syrians are trying to muddy the waters about alleged attacks by al-Assad's forces, say Western diplomats.
Tensions have also been high since four Russian spies were expelled from the Netherlands in 2018 for allegedly trying to hack into the OPCW's computers.
The eagerly awaited first reports by the new investigation team are expected in the next few months, OPCW chief Arias said recently. Diplomats say they expect release of the reports in February or March.
Russia and the West may, however, reach agreement on the thorny issue of whether to extend the list of banned chemical weapons to include new "Novichoks" -- the nerve agent used in the 2018 Salisbury, England, attacks.
London blamed Moscow for the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter and said Novichok, a military-grade poison developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, was used. Both Skripals survived.
The United States, the Netherlands and Canada have called for the addition of two novichoks, but Moscow wants to add similar chemicals that it says Western nations were experimenting with.
A compromise now appeared to be on the cards, said diplomats.