UNITED NATIONS – Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and UN envoy Vladimir Sakronkov said Syria was blamed for a nerve gas attack on April 4 before an independent investigation had even been conducted.
Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, called for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to undertake a thorough probe of the northern town of Khan Shaykhun in northern Idlib province, which it has promised to do.
But there were conditions, according to Sakronkov, a deputy UN ambassador. He spoke after vetoing a draft resolution sponsored by Britain, France and the United States, saying Syria was pre-judged for the attack.
For one, he said the OPCW had to visit Khan Shaykhun as well as the al-Shayrat airfield the United States bombed with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles on April 6 (US time) to see if toxic chemicals were located there.
The composition of the team had to be spread among geographical regions and make contact with representatives of Damascus and the opposition.
“We insist on the fact that its staffing of the mission is something that should done on the basis of wide geographical basis and the results of the investigation is something that needs to be trusted,” Sakronkov told the Security Council.
“Both official Damascus and the opposition together in unison are asking for an independent investigation whereas the OPCW is doing nothing for reasons unknown,” Sakronkov said.
He said the OPCW often conducted investigations from remote sites and now had spent a week after the attacks doing nothing.
In other words, there are plenty of loopholes that could cause Russia to reject the investigation or do nothing if Syria is fingered.
The last probe was after the bombing in Aleppo, when investigators concluded that Syria had used chlorine gas in three cases and ISIL used mustard gas in one case. No action was taken and the mandate for the investigation was extended on November 18.
In Moscow after his meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters:
“On numerous occasions, the Syrian Government and the Syrian servicemen have given us absolutely incontrovertible evidence about the use of chemical weapons. This was not some kind of distance information, but information from the site…Some of the communications which are going to the Syrian Government are all pivoting on distance information.”
“I don’t want to completely discredit the White Helmets, but this is a problem, and also the quality of testimony which exists with regard to the use of chemicals in the territory which is controlled by the opposition,” he said. Syria has criticized the aid group as being controlled by Britain.
How they voted
The resolution Russia vetoed on Wednesday would have condemned the use of chemical weapons, called for an investigation by international monitors and asked Damascus to turn over flight logs, flight plans and names of commanders involved in air operations on the day of the attack.
It was Moscow’s eighth veto on a Syria resolution. China used its veto power six times.
The vote was 10 countries in favor: Britain, France, United States, Egypt, Italy, Japan, Senegal, Ukraine, Uruguay. Two against: Russia, Bolivia. Three abstained: China, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan.
The Security Council requires nine votes in favor and no veto from any of the five permanent members.
US Ambassador Nikki Haley told the Council:
With its veto, Russia said no to accountability. Russia said no to cooperation with the UN’s independent investigation.
Today’s vote could have been a turning point. Once more, this vote could have been the moment when Russia saw that its interests do not lie with a murderous dictator, but rather with the many countries in the international community, including those across the Middle East, that want to end this conflict. By its failure, Russia will continue to be isolated.
Britain: It was sarin
Earlier in the day in a session on Syria, British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said a London institute determined that toxic sarin had been used in the April 4 attack. He referred to chemical weapons scientists at Porton Down, a renowned military research center.
He accused Russia of siding with “a murderous barbaric criminal rather than with their international peers.”
Safronkov glared at him and said “I cannot accept that you insult Russia” He then demanded that Rycroft look at him while he was speaking.
In the same meeting Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy on Syria, who has labored patiently on a political agreement, said the US and Russia must find a way to work together to stabilize the situation and support the political process.
He said that last week’s reported chemical weapons attack, the subsequent airstrikes by the US and intensified fighting on the ground have put the fragile peace process is in “grave danger.” The next meeting of rival Syrians is in May.