Russia Rejects Trump Administration’s U.N. Bid To Condemn Syrian Chemical Weapons Attack

Nikki Haley warns of possible U.S. action against Syria if the Security Council fails to respond to Tuesday's chemical weapons attack.

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Russia bluntly rejected a push by the United States, Britain and France in the Security Council to condemn Tuesday’s deadly chemical weapons attack in Syria as “completely unacceptable,” heading off Western efforts to compel President Bashar al-Assad’s government to disclose intelligence on the actions of its air force on the day of the attack.

The Security Council stalemate on Wednesday marked a blow to international efforts to contain the use of chemical weapons on the modern battlefield, and raised the prospect that Russia may have to cast its eighth veto on Syria to block it’s adoption. It sparked a bitter exchange in an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council as the U.S. and its European allies accused Moscow of providing cover for what they characterized as the worst chemical weapons attack since August, 2013, when the Syrian government killed more than 1,400 civilians in the Damascus suburbs of Eastern Ghouta, according to the United States.

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, blasted Russia as having lost its humanity, displaying photographs of a small child and other civilians suffocating in Khan Sheikhoun. “How many more children have to die before Russia cares?” she said. “We cannot close our eyes to those pictures. We cannot close our minds of  the responsibility to act.”  

“We know that yesterday’s attack bears all hallmarks of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons,” she added. “We know that Assad had used those weapons against the Syrian people before that was confirmed by  this council’s own independent team of investigators.”

Haley also issued a veiled warning that the United States and its allies might act outside the U.N. to address alleged Syria’s chemical weapons use. But she offered no detail on what the United States was prepared to do. “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,” Haley told the Security Council. “For the sake of the victims, I hope the rest of the council is finally willing to do the same.”

Russia and Syria both denied that Syrian forces were responsible for the chemical attack, while a senior Russian envoy, Vladimir Safronkov, accused the council’s Western powers of pursuing an “ideological” crusade aimed at undermining Russian- and Turkish-led diplomatic talks and toppling the Assad regime.

In remarks to the council, Safronkov, said that Syrian aircraft struck a warehouse in Khan Sheikhoun, in the rebel-held Idlib province, that produced chemical weapons. Safronkov said that Russia does “not see a particular need” for a new resolution on Syrian chemical weapons, saying that a fact-finding mission set up by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in 2014 to investigate reports of chlorine weapon use was capable of carrying out an investigation. That mission does not have a mandate to attribute responsibility for using such weapons.

“We categorically reject false claims and accusations on the use by the Syrian Armed Forces of chemical weapons against civilians,” Syria’s deputy U.N. envoy Mounser Mounser told the council. “The Syrian army does not have any form of chemical weapons; we have never used them and we will never use them.”

If initial reports blaming Assad’s military for the attack are confirmed, it catches the Trump administration between a rock and diplomatic hard place. Days before the attack, top administration officials signaled they wouldn’t seek Assad’s ouster any longer, a shift away from past U.S. policy. Both U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Haley said the administration would back off of pushing for Assad’s removal. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) slammed the administration for enabling the attack, saying Tuesday Tillerson and Haley’s statements “cannot be anything but motivating to Bashar al-Assad.”

Tillerson initially declined to comment on the attack Tuesday, but released a comment hours later denouncing Assad’s “brutal, unabashed barbarism.” He added Russia and Iran, close allies of Assad, “bear great moral responsibility for these deaths.”

The U.N.’s high representative for disarmament, Kim Won-soo, cited media reports indicating the deaths of more than 70 civilians, and the injury of more than 200 others, many who showed symptoms of vomiting, fainting, and foaming at the mouth. Kim said initial reports indicated that the attacks was “carried out through an airstrike on a residential area,” but that the “means of delivery of the alleged attack cannot be definitively confirmed, at this stage.”

He added, “If confirmed, this would constitute the single largest chemical weapons attack in the Syrian Arab Republic since the attack on Eastern Ghouta in August, 2013.”

Kim said that a fact-finding mission established by the OPCW in April, 2014 to investigate reports of chlorine weapons use is “actively engaged in gathering and analyzing information” on the latest attack and will deploy a team in Syria “at the earliest opportunity.”

The resolution — which was drafted by Britain, France, and the United States — “expresses its outrage that individuals continue to be killed and injured by chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic, and expresses its determination that those responsible must be held accountable,” according to a draft text obtained by Foreign Policy.

It would have obliged Syria to hand over its flight logs and plans on the day of the attack to chemical weapons experts from the U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

After the council meeting, the U.S. and its European allies were consulting to determine whether to push for a vote on their resolution in the face of a likely Russian veto.  

Russia and China vetoed seven past council bids on Syria to protect Assad’s regime from U.N. sanctions and condemnation, including a January measure that would have imposed penalties on Syrian commanders suspected of ordering chemical weapons attacks.

While the debate played out on the floor of the U.N., Syrians reeled from the fallout of the deadly attack.

Casualty reports vary, but a Syrian rescue worker at the scene told FP 70 civilians were killed and 300 injured, many of whom were women and children. Some 80 rescue volunteers for the Syrian Civil Defense were also injured, Anas, a Syrian ‘White Helmet’ rescue worker told FP.

He described the aftermath. Immediately after the attack, “around one kilometer away, I started feeling the smell of the gas and I knew if I continue on I will get infected like what happened to my colleagues,” Anas said. “At this point, I headed towards the center and the hospital, at the time there were around 50 cases,” he said. Hours later, he returned to the area with other rescue workers and journalists and describe the scene. “The area [hit] was a simple hole in the ground on one of the streets surrounded by black gas or a very dark substance,” he said.

By then, victims had been transferred to hospitals. But for dozens, help came too late. One man, Hamid el Yusuf, lost his entire family of 15 in the attack, including his two young children, Anas said.

Mizar Hassani, a Syrian American Medical Society doctor at a hospital near the attack, told FP the likely culprit was sarin gas. “This is a chemical gas attack, from signs and symptoms and in our experience this is usually from sarin gas inhalation or organic phosphorous compound, not chlorine inhalation,” Hassani said.

This was the worst, but not the first gas attack in recent weeks, FP learned. Hassani said his hospital received dozens of patients in the past two weeks suffering from sarin gas and chlorine gas inhalation.

After the attack, airstrikes reportedly by Assad’s military forces targeted the nearby hospital treating victims. Anas said the only hospital in the town struck by the attack suffered ten air raids hours after the attack. “The ambulances were completely out of service, the heavy equipments that we used to rescue people from underneath the rubbles is also out of service,” he said.

Photo credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

This story has been updated.

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

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer