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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Russia blocks extending investigations into Syria chemical weapons attacks

Moscow's veto at the Security Council throws into doubt the work of UN and OPCW inspectors tasked with identifying who is responsible for dozens of suspected chemical weapon attacks when their mandate ends on November 17

A civil defence member breathes through an oxygen mask after the sarin gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun in the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib on April 4, 2017. Ammar Abdullah / Reuters
A civil defence member breathes through an oxygen mask after the sarin gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun in the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib on April 4, 2017. Ammar Abdullah / Reuters

Russia on Tuesday vetoed a UN Security Council resolution to extend the work of inspectors investigating who was behind chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

The United States and UK immediately accused Russia of putting political considerations ahead of the misery suffered by the Syrian population.

The result throws into doubt the work of UN and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inspectors jointly tasked with identifying who is responsible for dozens of suspected chemical weapon attacks when their mandate ends on November 17.

Nikki Haley, the US's permanent representative to the UN, said Russia had once again demonstrated it would do whatever it took to protect the “barbaric” regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.

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“This is the ninth time Russia has protected Assad and his team of murderers by blocking the Security Council from acting,” she said.

“In doing so, Russia once again sides with the dictators and terrorists who use these weapons.”

Both sides accuse the other of politicising the issue, which came to a vote on United Nations Day.

Russian diplomats had said all along that they would not extend the mandate of the Joint Investigation Mechanism (Jim) before the inspectors published their report on the chemical attack in Khan Sheikoun on April 4 which killed more than 90 people.

A separate OPCW fact-finding mission determined in June that the banned nerve agent sarin had been used in the attack.

The Jim inspectors were tasked with identifying who was responsible for that attack, with their report is due on Thursday.

President Al Assad has denied using chemical weapons and Russia has indicated it would immediately end the investigators’ mandate if they point the finger at regime forces.

Vassily Nebenzia, the Russian ambassador to the UN, said the scheduling of the vote was an attempt to embarrass Moscow by countries who had already decided that Damascus was behind the attack.

He accused the US, which launched missile strikes on Syria's Shayrat airfield in response to the attack, of knowing that the Jim report would be flawed.

“Why today? What is the haste? Don’t you think it’s strange? Perhaps the American side knows in advance the conclusions of the report and understands the conclusions are not based on any evidence and that itself could undermine the Jim, pointing to its politicisation,” he said.

Mr Nebenzia had earlier tried and failed to have the vote delayed to next month — until after the Khan Sheikhoun report had been published — and pointed out that there was still time to return to the issue before the existing mandate expired.

China abstained from the vote on Tuesday, while Bolivia joined Russia in voting no.

The resolution was sponsored by the US, which feared all along that Russia would simply veto any renewal if the Jim report did blame Damascus for the Khan Sheikoun attack.

At least 60 more gas attacks are believed to be under investigation.

The use of chemical weapons is a war crime but has been a frequent factor in the six-year Syrian conflict.

Investigators have found that government forces used chlorine on at least three occasions in rebel-held areas during 2014 and 2015.

However, the Khan Sheikhoun attack is the most politically potent.

Witnesses described seeing an aircraft drop a bomb shortly before the symptoms of sarin were reported.

The attack sparked international outrage as photos and video of the aftermath, including quivering children dying on camera, were widely broadcast.

Matthew Rycroft, UK ambassador to the UN, said it was essential to renew the inspectors' mandate as soon as possible. Previous uncertainty had brought the work of the inspectors to a halt for months at a time, he said.

He added that the veto would only benefit the Syrian regime and ISIL.

“Not content with spuriously questioning the Jim’s methods and conclusions, Russia has now sought to silence them,” he said.

“Instead of respecting the professional and impartial work of the Jim — whose tireless efforts I pay tribute to today — Russia alone has chosen to abuse its veto to support a regime that has no regard for international treaties, no regard for the most basic rules of law, no regard for its own people."

Francois Delattre, the French ambassador to the UN, said the work of the OPCW, showed the use of banned weapons continued.

“This justifies more than ever the … investigations to find and punish those responsible,” he said.