World / Politics

U.S. vows action over Assad gas attack if U.N. stalls, scorns Russia claim of rebel chemical stash

AP, Reuters

U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley warned Wednesday that the Trump administration will take action against chemical attacks in Syria that bear “all the hallmarks” of President Bashar Assad’s government if the U.N. Security Council fails to act.

Haley urged the council at an emergency meeting to immediately approve a resolution drafted by the U.S., Britain and France that condemns and threatens consequences for the use of chemical weapons, especially in Tuesday’s attack that killed dozens of people in rebel-held Idlib province.

“There are times at the United Nations when we are compelled to take collective action,” she said. “When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action.”

“For the sake of the victims, I hope the rest of the council is finally willing to do the same,” she added.

Haley spoke after Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova announced Moscow’s opposition to the draft resolution. She called it “categorically unacceptable” because “it runs ahead of the investigation results and names the culprit, Damascus.”

“The main task now is to have an objective inquiry into what happened,” Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Vladimir Safronkov, told the Security Council. “Up to now all falsified reports about this incident have come from the White Helmets or the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights based in London which have been discredited long ago.”

He said that from 11:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. on April 4, the Syrian government carried out an airstrike on the eastern edge of the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun “on a large warehouse of ammunition and military equipment.”

On that compound, he said, there was a facility “to produce ammunition with the use of toxic weapons” that was supposed to be used in Iraq and Aleppo.

“Their use was confirmed last year by Russia and military experts,” Safronkov said. “The symptoms of those affected in Khan Sheikhoun were the same as those by people who were affected last year in Aleppo.”

Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft also told the council that Tuesday’s attack “bears all the hallmarks” of Assad’s regime.

“We have every indication that this was a sustained attack using aircraft over a number of hours,” Rycroft said. “We see all the signs of an attack using a nerve agent capable of killing over a hundred people and harming hundreds more.”

Holding up photos of victims of the attack, Haley accused Russia of blocking action and closing its eyes to the “barbarity” of three previous chemical attacks that investigators blamed on the Syrian government by vetoing a resolution in late February that would have imposed sanctions on those responsible.

“The truth is that Assad, Russia, and Iran have no interest in peace,” she said. “The illegitimate Syrian government, led by a man with no conscience, has committed untold atrocities against his people for six years.”

Haley said Assad has shown he isn’t interested in participating in “a meaningful political process, Iran has reinforced Assad’s military, and Russia has shielded Assad from U.N. sanctions.”

“If Russia has the influence in Syria that it claims to have, we need to see them use it,” she said. “We need to see them put an end to these horrific acts. How many more children have to die before Russia cares?”

The resolution drafted by the U.S., Britain and France would condemn the use of chemical weapons in Syria, especially on Tuesday, “in the strongest terms” and back an investigation by the international chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

It stresses that the Syrian government, under previous Security Council resolutions, is obligated to provide OPCW investigators and a U.N.-OPCW team charged with assessing blame for chemical attacks with information on all flight plans and air operations on April 4 and the names of commanders of any helicopter squadrons.

It reminds the government that it is also obligated to immediately provide investigators with access to air bases where they believe chemical weapons attacks may have been launched.

Russia’s Safronkov told the council that several major provisions of the resolution are unacceptable to Moscow and France’s U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre told reporters later that negotiations on the text have started “with a good spirit.”

He said he thinks there’s a chance for agreement, if everyone is ready to compromise.

“Our objective is to go for a vote the sooner the better … and we want a swift and strong resolution,” he said, adding that a vote was unlikely late Wednesday.

The best option would be united action by the Security Council, he said when asked about possible unilateral action by the United States. “I’m concerned … by the risk of inaction at this stage.”

Syria’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Mounzer Mounzer, told the council his government categorically rejects “false claims and accusations” that the army used toxic chemicals against Syrian civilians in Khan Sheikhoun, saying they are being used “as human shields by armed terrorist groups.”

He said the army doesn’t have any type of chemical weapons and “we have never used them and we will never use them.”

Mounzer called Syria the victim of “falsification and fabrication” by some permanent members of the Security Council and “armed terrorist groups” backed by several U.N. member states. He didn’t name any countries.

U.S. officials dismissed Russia’s assertion on Wednesday that Syrian rebels were to blame for the poison gas attack rather than Assad, and signaled possible unilateral action over what Donald Trump called an “affront to humanity.”

The U.S. president said the attack, which killed at least 70 people, many of them children, “crossed a lot of lines,” an allusion to his predecessor Barack Obama’s threat to topple Assad with airstrikes if he used such arms.

It was not clear what, if any, action Trump would take.

The comments, which came just a few days after Washington said it was no longer focused on making Assad leave power, widened a rift between the Kremlin and Trump’s White House after initial signals of warmer ties.

Western countries, including the United States, blamed Assad’s armed forces for the worst chemical attack in Syria for more than four years.

U.S. intelligence officials, based on a preliminary assessment, said the deaths were most likely caused by sarin nerve gas dropped by Syrian aircraft on the town of Khan Sheikhoun on Tuesday. A senior State Department official said Washington had not yet ascertained that it was sarin.

Moscow offered an alternative explanation that would shield Assad: that the poison gas belonged to rebels and had leaked from an insurgent weapons depot hit by Syrian bombs.

A senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Russian explanation was not credible. “We don’t believe it,” the official said.

The United States, Britain and France have proposed a draft U.N. Security Council resolution that would condemn the attack.

The Russian Foreign Ministry called the resolution “unacceptable” and said it was based on “fake information.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow would press its case blaming the rebels for the poisoning, signaling a likely veto.

Haley issued what appeared to be a threat of unilateral action if Security Council members could not agree.

Trump described the attack as “horrible” and “unspeakable.” Asked whether he was formulating a new policy towards Syria, he told reporters: “You’ll see.”

Video uploaded to social media showed civilians sprawled on the ground, some in convulsions, others lifeless. Rescue workers hose down the limp bodies of small children, trying to wash away chemicals. People wail and pound on the chests of victims.

The charity Medecins Sans Frontieres said one of its hospitals in Syria had treated patients “with symptoms — dilated pupils, muscle spasms, involuntary defecation — consistent with exposure to neuro-toxic agents such as sarin.” The World Health Organization also said the symptoms were consistent with exposure to a nerve agent.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the attack had killed more than 100 people. That death toll could not be independently confirmed.

“We’re talking about war crimes,” French U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre told reporters in New York.

Hasan Haj Ali, commander of the Free Idlib Army rebel group, called the Russian statement blaming the rebels a “lie” and said rebels did not have the capability to produce nerve gas.

“Everyone saw the plane while it was bombing with gas,” he told Reuters from northwestern Syria. “Likewise, all the civilians in the area know that there are no military positions there, or places for the manufacture (of weapons).”

The incident is the first time U.S. intelligence officials have accused Assad of using sarin since 2013, when hundreds of people died in an attack on a Damascus suburb. At that time, Washington said Assad had crossed a “red line” set by then-President Obama.

Obama threatened an air campaign to topple Assad but called it off at the last minute when the Syrian leader agreed to give up his chemical arsenal under a deal brokered by Moscow, a decision Trump has long said proved Obama’s weakness.

The new incident means Trump is faced with same dilemma that faced his predecessor: whether to openly challenge Moscow and risk deep involvement in a Middle East war by seeking to punish Assad for using banned weapons, or compromise and accept the Syrian leader remaining in power at the risk of looking weak.

Trump has described Tuesday’s incident as “heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime” and faulted Obama for having failed to enforce the red line four years ago. Obama’s spokesman declined comment.

The draft U.N. Security Council resolution condemns the attack and presses Syria to cooperate with international investigators. Russia has the power to veto it. It has blocked seven resolutions to protect Assad’s government, most recently in February.

France’s foreign minister said the chemical attack showed Assad was testing whether the new U.S. administration would stand by Obama-era demands that he be removed from power.

“It’s a test. That’s why France repeats the messages, notably to the Americans, to clarify their position,” Jean-Marc Ayrault told RTL radio. “I told them that we need clarity. What’s your position?”

Trump’s response to a diplomatic confrontation with Moscow will be closely watched at home because of accusations by his political opponents that he is too supportive of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

U.S. intelligence agencies say Russia intervened in the U.S. presidential election last year through computer hacking to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton. The FBI and two congressional committees are investigating whether figures from the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow, which the White House denies.

Trump’s relationship with Russia has deteriorated since the presidential election campaign, when Trump praised Putin as a strong leader and vowed to improve relations between the two countries, including a more coordinated effort to defeat Islamic State in Syria.

But as Russia has grown more assertive, including interfering in European politics and deploying missiles in Kaliningrad and a new ground-launched cruise missile near Volgograd in southern Russia — an apparent violation of the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty — relations have cooled, U.S. officials have said.

The chemical attack in Idlib province, one of the last major strongholds of rebels who have fought since 2011 to topple Assad, complicates diplomatic efforts to end a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven half of Syrians from their homes.