The Cable

Russia Vetoes Extension of U.N. Inquiry Into Syrian Chemical Weapons Attack

The sole investigation into responsibility for a deadly sarin attack is now in jeopardy.

A man collects samples from the site of a suspected sarin gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria, on April 4. (Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images)
A man collects samples from the site of a suspected sarin gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria, on April 4. (Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia vetoed a U.S.-sponsored resolution at the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday that would have extended the investigation into who used chemical weapons in a deadly sarin gas attack last April, capping several days of rapid-fire diplomacy and underscoring widening divisions between Washington and Moscow.

Separate investigations under the auspices of the U.N. have concluded that the Syrian government was likely responsible for the April strike on Khan Sheikhoun, which killed at least 83 people and highlighted the Syrian regime’s abuse of its chemical weapons stockpile after allegedly getting rid of it in 2013.

That investigation isn’t complete, but its mandate is set to expire on Nov. 17. The so-called Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), a collaboration between the U.N. and experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, is the only body in place seeking to establish accountability for the use of chemical weapons during the more than six-year conflict.

But Russian officials, who since late 2015 have thrown their support behind Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, have steadfastly maintained that anti-government groups were behind the deadly attack. This month, Russia signaled that it might not be willing to extend the investigators’ mandate, which could slam shut any further U.N. investigation into who ordered the attack.

That prompted Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., to push for an early vote in the hope of forcing a public confrontation over the issue.

“This should not be controversial, but some Council members have decided to make it so,” Haley said in a statement last week. “We can’t pick and choose who we want to be at fault and who we don’t.”

After Tuesday’s vote, several other members of the Security Council also voiced dissatisfaction with the Russian position. “Russia has now sought to silence [the JIM’s] investigation,” said Matthew Rycroft, Britain’s ambassador to the U.N. Other delegations put out similar statements on the situation.

“We must not let political differences, or worse short-term political gains, undermine these [anti-chemical weapon] regimes,” French Ambassador François Delattre said.

In nixing the U.S. proposal Tuesday however, Vassily Nebenzia, the Russian ambassador the U.N., accused the United States of calling the vote to “show up and dishonor Russia.” The future of the committee is now in question until the results of the final report are released.

Though chemical weapons have been used repeatedly in the Syrian civil war — including a notable attack in August 2013 east of Damascus that killed hundreds of people — the Khan Sheikhoun attack prompted particular outrage, especially in the United States. President Donald Trump ordered a cruise missile strike against a Syrian airfield from where regime aircraft allegedly took over to deliver the deadly sarin nerve agent. The attack took the airfield out of commission for several hours.

Russia, which took the lead on the international effort to remove Assad’s chemical weapons stocks in 2013, was initially supportive of the U.N.’s chemical weapons inquiries and had voted to extend its mandate several times in the past. However, Moscow has since been critical of the investigation after it fingered the Syrian government for several previous attacks in 2014 and 2015.

Rhys Dubin is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Rhys_Dubin

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