By Kambiz Foroohar
The U.S. and Russia clashed Monday at the United Nations Security Council over allegations that the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad has once again used chemical weapons in attacks on rebel enclaves.
U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said Russia is blocking a probe of chemical weapons use and shielding Assad by preventing a Security Council statement condemning the use of chlorine on civilians over the weekend.
“Russia has delayed the adoption of this statement, a simple condemnation of Syrian children being suffocated by chlorine gas,” Haley said. “This council has been outspoken on ending Syria’s use of chemical weapons, and yet, they continue.”
Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia rejected Haley’s charges as “slander against Russia” and said the proposal his country introduced last month, to create a new mechanism to investigate future chemical attacks, is still an option.
“We call for due investigation of all the attacks,” Nebenzia told reporters after the meeting. “We’re moving somewhere. Where we’ll end up finally, we don’t know yet.”
Haley previously called Russia’s proposal, which came after Moscow opposed keeping an earlier UN chemical weapons investigative team intact, a “distraction” and on Monday said Moscow was sending the Security Council “back to square one” in its efforts to stop chemical weapons use.
The Syrian American Medical Society said hospitals in the rebel-held town of Saraqeb in Idlib province treated 11 patients for chlorine gas poisoning. At least 28 civilians were killed in Syrian government strikes targeting rebel-held areas near the capital Damascus, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Russia has used its Security Council veto 11 times to shield Assad since the country’s civil war began in 2011. The Russian proposal to create a new investigative team garnered only four votes last year, well short of the nine votes needed for passage.
Senior U.S. officials briefing reporters last week said Assad’s regime has hidden its chemical weapons program and continues to use it, despite a 2013 agreement between the U.S. and Russia to eliminate Syria’s stockpiles. President Donald Trump launched a missile strike on a Syrian airbase last year after reviewing evidence of chemical weapons use by Assad’s regime.
Defense Secretary James Mattis said last week that the U.S. is seeking to corroborate claims made by Syrian rebels that Assad forces have renewed the use of chemical weapons, which would violate international treaties.
“You all have seen how we reacted to that” attack last year, Mattis told reporters Feb. 2. “They’d be ill-advised to go back to violating the chemical convention.”