Russia Stalls Western Push to Sanction Syria for Chemical Weapons Attacks

As Britain and France press for quick Syria sanctions, the United States seeks more time to strike an agreement with Moscow to preserve the mandate for chemical weapons inspectors.

By Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
A man wearing a gas mask takes part in a protest against the prospect of using Albania as a site for destroying Syria's chemical weapons stockpile in front of Albanian Embassy in Pristina on November 12, 2013. AFP PHOTO / ARMEND NIMANI        (Photo credit should read ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images)
A man wearing a gas mask takes part in a protest against the prospect of using Albania as a site for destroying Syria's chemical weapons stockpile in front of Albanian Embassy in Pristina on November 12, 2013. AFP PHOTO / ARMEND NIMANI (Photo credit should read ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

More than two months after the United Nations concluded that Syria attacked its citizens with chemical weapons, President Barack Obama’s administration has yet to mount a concerted effort at the U.N. Security Council to impose biting sanctions on Damascus. The U.S. reluctance has put Washington at odds with its closest allies, Britain and France, which want to put Moscow on the spot for its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The United States has never had as much proof as it now has that Assad’s regime deployed chemical weapons upon its own people. But Washington has repeatedly hesitated in recent months to put that evidence before the U.N. Security Council and press for sanctions. That caution acknowledges the likelihood that Russia, which like the United States wields veto power over Security Council decisions, would block any penalties against its ally Assad.

On Thursday, Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, challenged the findings of international chemical weapons experts who concluded that Syria’s regime had used chlorine bombs in at least three towns in 2014 and 2015. Speaking in a closed-door session of the U.N. Security Council, Churkin claimed that the attacks were likely carried out by anti-government terrorists, according to a copy of his remarks. “The proof is not there for any punitive action to be taken” against the Syrian government, Churkin told reporters.

The failure to punish Syria for repeatedly dropping chlorine bombs on towns controlled by opposition forces could have consequences reaching far beyond the nearly five-and-a-half-year war. Syria is the only member of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention that has been found to have used chemical weapons. The United States and its allies fear that withholding action against Syria could encourage others to similarly violate the treaty.

“Should the international community fail to take action to hold accountable those responsible for confirmed use, we risk lasting damage to this international norm, which is critical to international peace and security,” Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said this month. “Other actors, seeking to terrorize innocents, will be watching to see how the international community responds at this time.”

But Western allies have differed over their approaches. Britain and France have been pressing Washington since late August to move swiftly to pass a U.N. resolution sanctioning Syria for using chemical weapons during the country’s civil war and have dared Russia to veto it. The United States agrees that there is a need to punish Syria, and it has discussed a number of measures — including sanctions targeting the country’s chemical infrastructure and helicopter units used in attacks — with its European partners.

But it appears reluctant to pull the trigger — at least for now.

Two senior Security Council diplomats said they believe the United States is committed to pursuing sanctions. But they said Washington wants to ensure first that it can secure Russian agreement for an ongoing role for international chemical weapons inspectors in Syria. In Thursday’s closed-door Security Council, Power said the council has to do something to hold those responsible for chemical weapons use to account.

The renewed debate over chemical weapons comes as the Syrian conflict has taken a turn for the worse. On Wednesday, the U.N. emergency relief coordinator, Stephen O’Brien, bluntly accused Syria and Russia of pursuing a military campaign aimed at grinding the opposition into surrender.

“Let me be clear — Eastern Aleppo is being besieged by the Syrian government,” O’Brien told the Security Council. “Civilians are being bombed by Syrian and Russian forces, and if they survive that, they will starve tomorrow.”

Syrian and Russian aircraft, he added, have dropped leaflets that read: “This is your last hope.… Save yourselves. If you do not leave these areas urgently, you will be annihilated.”

Churkin fired back Wednesday, suggesting the leaflets may have been fakes designed to tarnish Syria and Russia’s reputation.

“It was quite outrageous,” Churkin said of O’Brien’s remarks. “You need to stick to facts, and the fact he didn’t mention [is] that there have been no bombings in eastern Aleppo in the past seven days. We’re not asking for praise, but failure to mention that to me was devaluing entirely his whole speech to the Security Council.”

In August 2015, the Security Council established a Joint Investigative Mechanism — including specialists from the U.N. and The Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons — to identify the perpetrators of nine documented cases of chemical weapons use in 2014 and 2015. A year later, the investigative unit, known as the JIM, concluded that Syrian air force helicopters had dropped barrel bombs, or other devices, containing a toxic agent — most likely chlorine — on the rebel-controlled towns of Talmenes and Sarmin.

The JIM also concluded that the Islamic State had shelled another rebel-controlled town, Marea, with mustard gas.

The findings spurred Britain and France to lobby for a tough resolution sanctioning Syrian air force units linked to chlorine attacks. But the United States — which at the time was engaged in sensitive negotiations with Russia over a cease-fire in eastern Aleppo — sought to defer action.

Instead, Washington urged its allies to wait until weapons inspectors had time to complete a final report in hopes that further evidence would strengthen the case for U.N. sanctions.

The report was distributed to the council last week. It found evidence that Syria used chlorine in a third attack on the town of Qmenas in March 2015 and identified the involvement of several air force units, including the 63rd Helicopter Brigade, and urged the council to hold them accountable.

“It is crucial to hold those who use or intend to use chemicals as weapons accountable for their acts, as it is fundamental to deter all those who continue to believe that there is something to be gained in the use of toxic chemicals as weapons,” the report concluded.

Shortly afterward, Britain and France publicly demanded imposing sanctions. The Security Council, said British envoy Matthew Rycroft, needs to “make sure there is genuine accountability, and that means sanctions.” French U.N. Ambassador François Delattre also weighed in: “We call for a resolution of the council to sanction the authors of those crimes,” he said. “When the use of weapons of mass destruction are at stake, weakness and impunity are simply not an option.”

The United States also called for holding perpetrators accountable for using chemical weapons. However, it found a new reason to delay action on a resolution to sanction Syria: Washington wants first to secure Security Council support for a separate measure extending the JIM’s mandate for another year.

It’s unlikely that Russia would reverse course and support sanctions against Assad, even if confronted with new evidence of the regime’s chemical attacks. But in closed-door talks with Britain and France, the United States maintains the investigative unit has practical value: The JIM’s 2015 creation has led to a reduction in chlorine attacks, and keeping it active could deter future attacks. Moreover, the United States has argued, maintaining the JIM would also keep the question of Syria’s chemical weapons activities before the Security Council.

The United States had floated a draft Security Council resolution to require updates on the investigative unit’s progress every 60 days. Britain and France say they will support the U.S. resolution but are hoping Washington can be persuaded to support a follow-up measure calling for sanctions.

Russia has expressed skepticism over the need to extend the JIM’s mandate. On Wednesday, Churkin threw cold water on the U.S. call for extending the unit’s mandate. “A quick, technical rollover is not going to work,” he told reporters at the U.N. headquarters in New York.

Churkin said any discussion of the JIM’s future would require talking about expanding its scope to allow investigators assiduously to track “possible preparations by various terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq for the production or use of chemical weapons.” Following Thursday’s Security Council meeting, Churkin added that the JIM would also have to expand the geographical scope of its investigations beyond Syria, focusing on terrorist efforts to develop chemical weapons in Iraq and potentially elsewhere.

The United States and its allies may not object to further scrutiny of chemical weapons use by Syrian extremists. But they will want to keep the focus of pressure on Assad’s chemical weapons attacks.

“The latest report confirms yet again what we have known for nearly three years now, that the Syrian regime systematically uses toxic chemicals as weapons,” Power said, accusing Assad of violating the Chemical Weapons Convention and Security Council Resolution 2118. “These incidents fit a consistent pattern of other confirmed regime uses of chemical weapons across Syria.”

Photo credit: ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch