US, Russia headed for showdown over Syria chemical weapons probe

Countries draft competing UN Security Council resolutions on continued work of investigative mechanism, criticized by Moscow for blaming Assad over gas attacks

OPCW head Edmond Mulet, left, Syrian UN envoy Ramzy Ezeldine Ramzy, and US envoy Nikki Haley  discuss the United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism at the UN SEcurity Council on November 7, 2017. (UN/Cia Pak)
OPCW head Edmond Mulet, left, Syrian UN envoy Ramzy Ezeldine Ramzy, and US envoy Nikki Haley discuss the United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism at the UN SEcurity Council on November 7, 2017. (UN/Cia Pak)

Russia and the United States were on a collision course ahead of a UN Security Council vote Thursday on the fate of a UN-led probe to determine who is behind chemical attacks in Syria’s six-year war.

Washington and Moscow have put forward rival draft resolutions on renewing for a year the mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), tasked with identifying perpetrators of Syria’s toxic gas attacks.

After negotiations failed to bridge differences, the rivals each called for a council vote on their draft resolutions on Thursday, hours before the JIM’s mandate expires at midnight.

Diplomats said they expected Russia to veto the US-drafted measure, which would be the 10th time Moscow has used its veto power at the council to block action targeting its Syrian ally.

The Russian text is unlikely to garner the nine votes required for adoption, diplomats said.

A resolution requires nine votes to be adopted at the council, but five countries — Russia, Britain, China, France and the United States — can block adoption with their veto power.

“The United States hopes the Security Council will stand united in the face of chemical weapons use against civilians and extend the work of this critical group,” said the US mission in a statement.

“Not doing so would only give consent to such atrocities while tragically failing the Syrian people who have suffered from these despicable acts.”

This photo provided Tuesday, April 4, 2017 by the Syrian anti-government activist group Edlib Media Center, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows victims of a suspected chemical attack, in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib province, Syria. (Edlib Media Center, via AP)

Russia has sharply criticized the JIM after its latest report blamed the Syrian air force for a sarin gas attack on the opposition-held village of Khan Sheikhoun that left scores dead.

The attack on April 4 triggered global outrage as images of dying children were shown worldwide, prompting the United States to launch missile strikes on a Syrian air base a few days later.

Washington and its allies have blamed President Bashar al-Assad’s government for the Khan Sheikhun attack, but Syria has denied using chemical weapons, with strong backing from Russia.

Both the U.S. and Russian draft resolutions would extend the JIM’s mandate that the council agreed to in previous resolutions for another year. They say the JIM should work “in an independent, impartial and professional manner in implementing its mandate.”

But the US draft would support the JIM’s experts pursuing investigations “in a manner they deem appropriate.” And it would underscore the importance of the JIM “conducting its investigations according to high methodological standards” and basing its findings on “evidentiary levels” outlined in 2016.

The Russian draft, by contrast, requests the JIM to visit Khan Sheikhoun and re-evaluate its findings. And it welcomes the “full and profound cooperation” extended by the Syrian government in establishing facts related to the Khan Sheikhoun and Um Hosh attacks.

A Syrian man collects samples from the site of a suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun, in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, on April 5, 2017. (AFP/Omar Haj Kadour)

It also would order the JIM to be guided by the “high standards” in the Chemical Weapons Convention and using additional evidence in its investigations. And it would ask Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to recruit experienced staff from as wide a geographical basis “as practicable.”

During a council vote in late October, Russia vetoed a US-drafted resolution on a one-year extension, arguing that it did not want to decide on the fate of the panel before the Khan Sheikhoun report.

Russian envoy Vassily Nebenzia, left, speaks with France’s François Delattre at a Security Council meeting on Syrian chemical weapons use on October 24, 2017. (UN/Cia Pak)

The United States, Britain and France have insisted that the JIM should be allowed to continue its work and that dozens of other cases of chemical weapons use in Syria must be investigated.

Britain said ending the investigation would mean that perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks in Syria will go unpunished.

“The only victors would be people who want to use chemical weapons in Syria, which is the Assad regime plus Daesh, and I think everyone in the Security Council would be shooting ourselves in the foot if we allowed that to happen,” said British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft.

Daesh is an Arabic-derived acronym that refers to the Islamic State group.

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said this week that scrapping the chemical weapons probe in Syria “may send a bad signal, but the way the investigation has been conducted sends an even worse signal.”

Victims of an attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria, Wednesday, August 21, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Shaam News Network)

In September 2013, Syria accepted a Russian proposal to relinquish its chemical weapons stockpile and join the Chemical Weapons Convention. That averted a US military strike in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which implements the 1997 convention, investigates alleged use of chemical weapons. But it is not authorized to determine responsibility and that is why the United States and Russia worked together to draft the resolution establishing the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism in 2015. Its mandate was renewed last year

Previous reports by the JIM have found that Syrian government forces were responsible for chlorine attacks on three villages in 2014 and 2015, and that the Islamic State group used mustard gas in 2015.

A bid by the United States, Britain and France to impose sanctions over the chlorine attacks was vetoed by Russia in February.

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