Russia Vetoes U.N. Effort to Finger Those Responsible for Syrian Chemical Weapons Attacks

Nikki Haley warns U.S. is prepared to use military to enforce prohibition on Syrian chemical weapons use.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Russia ambassador Vassily Nebenzia vetoes Syria chemical weapons resolution on October 24, 2017. (Timothy Clary/ AFP/Getty Images)
Russia ambassador Vassily Nebenzia vetoes Syria chemical weapons resolution on October 24, 2017. (Timothy Clary/ AFP/Getty Images)

Russia on Thursday vetoed a U.S.-drafted resolution to extend the mandate of United Nations chemical weapons inspectors in Syria, effectively ending international efforts to assign blame for the deadly use of toxic bombs in the country’s six-year-long civil war.

The Russian “no” essentially shutters a U.N.-mandated chemical weapons inspection unit created two years ago to hold those who used sarin gas and other toxic agents accountable for their crimes. The team previously found the Syrian government and the Islamic State, or ISIS, had unleashed chemical weapons on civilians in Syria.

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, denounced what she called a cynical act of obstructionism and warned that Washington is prepared to use force against the Syrian regime if it uses chemical weapons in the future. It was the 10th Russian veto on Syria and the fourth specifically on chemical weapons.

“Assad and ISIS will no longer be on notice for the use of chemical weapons by Russia’s actions today. The message to anyone listening is clear. In effect, Russia accepts the use of chemical weapons in Syria,” she said.

For his part, Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia countered that Russia remains committed to the preservation of the inspection team but that the United States refused to address what it considered “flaws” in its mission. He said that the U.S. and its supporters, not Russia, “bear the burden of responsibility if the [inspection] mechanism cannot be salvaged.”

Despite Haley’s tough talk, a White House spokesperson on Thursday indicated that President Donald Trump would still seek to work with Russia on a range of issues, including Syria, where both sides remain committed to fighting extremists.

The U.S. resolution was backed by 11 members of the 15-nation Security Council, while China and Egypt abstained. Bolivia joined Russia in voting no, but Russia is one of five permanent members of the security council with veto power.

The vote marks a major setback for U.S. efforts to apply diplomatic pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to halt a string of sarin gas attacks against opposition-controlled towns. It also has broader implications, undercutting years of cooperation in controlling the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Before Thursday’s vote, France’s U.N. Ambassador François Delattre had urged Russia “to think twice” before dooming the inspection team.

The inspectors are “not a tool of the West,” he said. “This would be a major strategic setback for the fundamentals of our common security and for the very future of the nonproliferation regime that we patiently built together over the last decades.”

The Russian move comes more than a month after the inspection team published an extensive report concluding that the Syrian Air Force dropped a sarin-filled bomb on Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, killing large numbers of civilians. That strike prompted Trump to launch Tomahawk missiles at the Syrian airbase used for the attack. The report also claimed that it is “confident” that the Islamic State carried out a mustard gas attack in the town of Umm Hawsh in September 2016.

Russia, which has actively backed the Assad regime since jumping into the conflict in late 2015, maintains that Syrian opposition groups detonated an improvised sarin explosive device on a road in Khan Sheikhoun. It has persistently sought to pick holes in the U.N. investigation.

“There are serious grounds to assume that much of the evidence was fabricated and some hastily removed to hamper credible investigation,” Russia contends, according to a paper presented to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres last month.

The blocked U.S. draft would have extended the inspectors’ mandate for another year.

Russia presented its own competing draft, which would have kept the inspection unit alive, but which also would have questioned its findings on Khan Sheikhoun, ordered the inspectors to reopen the case, and instructed them to focus more on allegations of terrorists’ use of chemical weapons.

But Moscow’s resolution — which was put to a vote by Bolivia after the veto — failed to secure the minimum nine votes required for passage in the council. Only Bolivia, China, Kazakhstan, and Russia voted in favor. Egypt, Ethiopia, Senegal, and Japan abstained. The U.S. and seven other council members voted against the resolution.

Syria agreed to dismantle its once-secret chemical weapons program in the fall of 2013 after an agreement between the United States and Russia. And while Damascus did destroy 1,300 tons of proscribed chemical agents, reports quickly surfaced that Syria was weaponizing chlorine — a widely available commercial cleanser not subject to international limits on chemical weapons.

In response, the Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons established a fact-finding mission in April 2014 to investigate claims that chlorine had been used as a chemical weapon in attacks on several towns.

The fact-finding mission, which is still in operation, has a limited mandate to determine whether chemical weapons have been used, not who used them.

To address that gap, the U.S. and Russia brokered a deal in the summer of 2015 to establish a second investigative team — known in U.N. parlance as the Joint Investigation Mechanism — to figure out who used the weapons. But Russia has consistently shielded its Syrian ally from the inspectors’ conclusions — earning praise from Damascus.

Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar Jaafari hailed Moscow after Thursday’s veto.

“Russia today did not obstruct the work of the Security Council, it worked on preventing another tragedy such as we witnessed in Libya and Iraq,” he said. “It complies with the purposes of the U.N. Charter. The vote of the Russian Federation is saving the Security Council.”

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