U.S., Russia spar at UN over Syria and chemical weapons

Russia and the United States tangle on Tuesday at the UN Security Council over Syria as they block attempts by each other to set up international investigations into chemical weapons attacks in the war-ravaged country.

Security Council stalemate comes as chemical weapons experts plan investigation

A man is washed following an alleged chemical weapons attack on the weekend, in what is said to be Douma, Syria, in this still image from video obtained by Reuters on Sunday. (White Helmets/Reuters TV)

Russia and the United States tangled on Tuesday at the UN Security Council over Syria as they blocked attempts by each other to set up international investigations into chemical weapons attacks in the war-ravaged country.

The United States and other Western powers are considering taking military action over a suspected poison gas attack on Saturday on a rebel-held Syrian town that long had held out against President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

Russia vetoed a U.S.-drafted resolution to create a new inquiry to ascertain blame for such attacks. The United States and other countries then blocked a rival Russian bid to set up a different probe that would require the Security Council to attribute responsibility.

A third resolution, drafted by Russia and expressing support for sending investigators from the global chemical weapons watchdog agency, then also failed to pass Tuesday.

Moscow opposes any Western strike on its close ally Assad. Russian UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said Washington's decision to put forward its resolution could be a prelude to a Western strike on Syria.

"The United States is again trying to mislead the international community and is making yet one more step toward confrontation," Nebenzia told the 15-member Security Council. "It is clear that the provocation step has nothing to do with a desire to investigate what happened."

At least 60 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured in Saturday's attack on the town of Douma, according to a Syrian relief group. Doctors and witnesses have said victims showed symptoms of poisoning, possibly by a nerve agent, and reported the smell of chlorine gas.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the Security Council that adopting the U.S.-drafted resolution was the least that member nations could do.

"All of us say we want an independent investigation. Our resolution achieves that goal. Russia's does not," said Hayley. "At a certain point, you're either for an independent and impartial investigation, or you're not. And now that the Douma attack has happened, this is not a decision that we can delay any longer. The Syrian people are counting on us."

When Russia vetoed the U.S. resolution, Haley didn't mince words.

"History will record that, on this day, Russia chose protecting a monster over the lives of the Syrian people," Haley said, referring to Assad.

Twelve council members voted in favour of the U.S.-drafted resolution, while Bolivia joined Russia in voting no, and China abstained. A resolution needs nine votes in favour and no vetoes by the five permanent members — Russia, China, France, Britain or the United States — to pass.

In an earlier statement, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said a fact-finding team is "preparing to deploy to Syria shortly." The OPCW received a request earlier Tuesday from the Syrian government and its Russian backers to investigate the allegations.

It was not immediately clear whether the announcement would avert U.S. military action against Syria. U.S. President Donald Trump has vowed to respond "forcefully" to Saturday's attack on civilians in the eastern Ghouta suburbs, and warned that Russia — or any other nation found to share responsibility — will "pay a price."

Trump on Tuesday cancelled plans to travel to South America later this week, choosing to stay in the United States to manage the response to the events in Syria, the White House said.

France and Britain also discussed with the Trump administration how to respond. Both stressed that the culprit in the attack still needs to be confirmed.

U.S. President Donald Trump, shown Monday during a cabinet meeting at the White House, has expressed desire to get U.S. troops out of Syria as quickly as possible, though the latest report of a chemical attack could complicate that plan. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Nuclear retaliation 'unlikely'

Syrian government forces were on high alert amid fears of a U.S. strike, while Moscow warned that a strike on Syria could trigger a direct military clash between Russia and the United States.

Vladimir Shamanov, a retired general who heads the defence affairs committee in the lower house of Russia's parliament, said in televised remarks Tuesday that a U.S. strike in Syria could hurt Russian servicemen and trigger Russian retaliation.

He said that Russia has "the necessary means for that, and the Americans and their allies know that quite well." 

Shamanov emphasized that a retaliatory Russian strike could target U.S. navy ships and aircraft. He added that the use of nuclear weapons is "unlikely."

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday that any strikes would not target the Syrian government's allies or anybody in particular, but would be aimed at the Syrian government's chemical facilities.

Speaking alongside Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Macron said a decision on whether to carry out military strikes would be made in the coming days after more consultations with the United States and Britain.

The OPCW, in its statement, said its technical Secretariat has asked the Syrian government to make the necessary arrangements for the deployment of a fact-finding mission. The group is the implementing body for the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997, which has been signed by 192 member states.

Syria became a member in 2013 as part of a deal brokered by the U.S. and Russia after a chemical attack in eastern Ghouta killed hundreds of people. That attack was widely blamed on government forces, who denied responsibility.

'Utterly reprehensible'

The Syrian government and its Russian backers strongly deny the allegations, and have questioned whether a chemical weapons attack took place.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said Tuesday he is outraged by the reported attack, and that the use of chemical weapons, if proved, would be a violation of international law. He also reaffirmed his support for an OPCW investigation.

Asked in Berlin whether she supports the idea, German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded unenthusiastically, saying "the evidence that chemical weapons were used there is very, very clear."

A bus carries rebels and their families who left Douma, at Wafideen camp in Damascus, on Monday. Dozens more buses arrived on Tuesday, according to Syria monitors. (Omar Sanadiki/Reuters)

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May's office said the leaders of Britain, France and the United States are determined that those behind a chemical weapons attack in Syria will be "held to account."

May's office says the prime minister spoke by phone Tuesday with Trump and Macron.

Downing Street called the reported attack "utterly reprehensible" and said "the international community needed to respond to uphold the worldwide prohibition on the use of chemical weapons."

There was no indication what form that response would take. May would not comment earlier when asked whether Britain would join any U.S.-led military intervention.

Airbase struck

A Syrian airbase was struck by missiles a little more than 24 hours after the alleged chemical attack, an airstrike that Syria and Russia have blamed on Israel. Israel does not typically comment on its operations in Syria, and it is unclear whether the missile attack was linked to the alleged use of chemical weapons.

Seven Iranians were among the estimated 14 people killed in the missile attack, and a senior Iranian official visiting Damascus said the attack "will not remain unanswered." Ali Akbar Velayati, an aide to Iran's supreme leader, spoke upon arrival in the Syrian capital on Tuesday, and was quoted by Iran's state-run news agency IRNA.

Iran's semi-official Tasnim news agency put the number of Iranians killed in the missile attack at seven. It said the victims have been transferred to Tehran and funerals will be held in the victims' hometowns across the country. 

Iran is one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's strongest backers and has sent thousands of troops and allied militiamen to support his forces.

This image from the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets shows medical workers treating children from the effects of a suspected chemical weapons attack in Douma on April 7. (Syrian Civil Defence White Helmets via AP)

Gorbachev 'deeply disappointed'

Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev said Russia and the United States are on the verge of a confrontation.

Gorbachev expressed "great concern" on Tuesday over the mounting tensions over Syria and emphasized the need for the U.S. and Russia to prevent incidents between their military forces in the region.

He said he is confident that "no one wants a war," but added that "such incidents could result in a huge disaster in the current tense environment."

Gorbachev, speaking to the Interfax news agency, said it's essential for Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet to defuse tensions.

He also that he is "deeply disappointed with the way current leaders are doing business," pointing at their "inability to engage in a dialogue and use diplomatic mechanisms."

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that as of Monday night, troops have been on a 72-hour alert and are fortifying their positions. The observatory's chief, Rami Abdurrahman, said the alert includes all army positions and bases from the southern province of Sweida all the way to Aleppo province in the north, the Mediterranean coast in the west to Deir el-Zour province in the east, along the Iraqi border.

With files from The Associated Press