DAMASCUS - International investigators on Tuesday entered a Syrian town hit by an alleged chemical attack, after days of delay and warnings by Western powers that crucial evidence had likely been removed.

The suspected gas attack on April 7 on Douma, near Damascus, reportedly left more than 40 people dead and was blamed by Western powers on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In response, the United States, France and Britain conducted unprecedented missile strikes on Syrian military installations, but Paris admitted on Tuesday they were a matter of “honour” that had solved nothing.

“Experts from the chemical weapons committee enter the town of Douma,” state news agency SANA wrote, referring to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

The inspectors arrived in Damascus on the day of the Western strikes but had not been allowed to enter Douma.

France and the United States appeared to question the purpose of such a mission, warning that any incriminating evidence had likely been removed by now.

“It is highly likely that evidence and essential elements disappear from the site, which is completely controlled by the Russian and Syrian armies,” the French foreign ministry said.

The US ambassador to the OPCW, Ken Ward, had claimed Monday that the site and “may have tampered with it”.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova hit back at France, calling the accusation “very surprising” and saying that Russia had supported the inspection.

Several experts have also said however that any investigation at this stage was likely to be inconclusive.

“As with any crime scene, it is crucial to get there as soon as possible,” said Olivier Lepick, a fellow at the Paris-based Foundation for Scientific Research.

“If the Russians and Syrians have nothing to hide, it’s strange that they would wait 36 to 72 hours,” he said. “It’s probably to give themselves the time to finish cleaning up.”

Stripping Legion d’Honneur

In an impassioned defence to the European Parliament on Tuesday, France’s President Emmanuel Macron admitted that Saturday’s strikes had been a more political than military decision.

“Three countries have intervened, and let me be quite frank, quite honest - this is for the honour of the international community,” he said in the French city of Strasbourg. “These strikes don’t necessarily resolve anything but I think they were important,” Macron added.

The French leader was also set to strip Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of a prestigious award he was granted by former president Jacques Chirac in 2001.

“The Elysee confirms that a disciplinary procedure for withdrawing the Legion d’Honneur (Legion of Honour) is under way,” Macron’s office said.

The war of words continued to spiral between the Russian-backed Syria regime and the West but a military escalation looked to have been averted despite both sides trading threats after the strikes. Yet, a report on SANA that Syrian air defences had shot down missiles over Homs province overnight raised fears that further action had indeed been taken.

It branded the incident an “aggression” but did not name a specific country.

Explosions were heard near Shayrat air base, southeast of Homs city, and near Damascus where two other air bases are located, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

‘False alarm’

Later Tuesday, however, SANA retracted the report, stressing there had been “no external attack” on Syria.

“Last night, a false alarm that Syrian air space had been penetrated triggered the blowing of air defence sirens and the firing of several missiles,” a military source told the agency.

After Saturday’s strikes, which destroyed mostly empty buildings, the trio of Western powers trying to reassert influence on the seven-year-old war have appeared to favour diplomatic action.

Turkey, Iran vow to continue alliance with Russia

The presidents of Turkey and Iran on Tuesday vowed to press on with their alliance alongside Russia over Syria, the Turkish presidency said, after Ankara backed strikes by the US and its allies against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia and Iran are the key allies of Assad and their military intervention in Syria is widely seen as helping him stay in power and tipping the balance in the civil war. But Moscow and Tehran have over the last months worked increasingly closely with Ankara - which has throughout the seven-year war called for Assad’s ouster - in seeking to find a solution to the conflict.

In an interview with French television, French President Emmanuel Macron suggested that the weekend air strikes against Syrian government targets had succeeded in engineering a split in the Russia-Turkey alliance.

But a Turkish presidential source said, following telephone talks between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani, that the two sides had vowed the alliance must continue. “The two leaders emphasised the importance of continuing the joint efforts of Turkey, Iran and Russia... to protect Syrian territorial integrity and find a lasting, peaceful solution to the crisis,” said the source.

KSA renews offer to

deploy troops to Syria

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir reaffirmed on Tuesday the kingdom's willingness to deploy troops to Syria as part of US-led efforts to stabilise the conflict-torn country.

"We are in discussions with the US and have been since the beginning of the Syrian crisis (in 2011) about sending forces into Syria," Jubeir said at a press conference in Riyadh with UN chief Antonio Guterres.

The comments were in response to a Wall Street Journal report on Monday that US President Donald Trump's administration was seeking to assemble an Arab force, including troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to help stabilise Syria.

The report follows weekend strikes by the United States, Britain and France against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's regime that hit targets they said were linked to its chemical weapons programme.

Jubeir emphasised the proposal to send its troops was "not new".

"We made a proposal to the (previous US) Obama administration that if the US were to send forces... then Saudi Arabia would consider along with other countries sending forces as part of this contingent," he said.

Syria's war, the most tangled of the region's conflicts, is a key point of contention pitting Riyadh and its allies, who mainly back Sunni Muslim rebels, against regime backer Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.

Riyadh and Shiite rival Tehran also back opposing sides in other hotspots across the mainly Sunni Middle East, including Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia's southern neighbour, Yemen.