Russia calls for international investigation of chemical attack, blocks UN resolution for investigation of chemical attack
UPDATE 1830: In a convoluted denial of responsibility, President Assad has insisted that the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun is “fabricated”.
Ignoring the testimony of victims, other residents, doctors, and first responders, Assad maintained that the only information is from “Al Qa’eda branch”. He asserted that “videos were fake” and that “we don’t know whether those dead children were killed in Khan Sheikhoun”.
UPDATE 1810 GMT: Apparently trying to divert attention from the Assad regime’s chemical attack last week, the Syrian army is spreading the unsupported story that a US-led coalition airstrike in eastern Syria has killed “hundreds of people” from “poisoning”.
The army said the strike was “against a huge depot for ISIS terrorist organization that includes toxic materials” near Deir ez-Zor at 5:30 p.m. local time on Wednesday. It claimed the resulting white cloud “that soon turned into yellow” suffocated “terrorists”, “mercenaries”, and civilians.
The storyline is similar to the Russian propaganda, covering up regime responsibility for last week’s missile strike on Khan Sheikhoun, that a Syrian warplane hit a rebel warehouse with sarin nerve agent.
Although the army produced no evidence for its claim, the allegation is being presented as fact by Russian State outlets and pro-Assad sites.
However, the Russian Defense Ministry stepped back from endorsement.
“The Ministry does not have any information confirming the reports about loss of life and material damage resulting from a bombing carried out by the US-led coalition warplanes in the area of the city of Deir ez-Zor,” spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.
The coalition spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve tweeted:
— OIR Spokesman (@OIRSpox) April 13, 2017
UPDATE 1800 GMT: Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has swiped at the US as he met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem.
Not everybody is happy about the progress that we ensured together with our Turkish and Iranian counterparts, as well as with the Syrian government and Kazakhstan, while the United States participated as an observer at the Astana talks.
Attempts are being made to disrupt the ceasefire which was agreed on Astana and welcomed by the United Nations Security Council.
Lavrov said the US missile strike on the Shayrat airbase, from where the Assad regime launched last week’s chemical attack in northwest Syria, was “a provocation” and claimed “the US Secretary of State and I thoroughly discussed the situation and agreed that this should not happen again”.
The Russian Foreign Minister tried to justify Russia’s veto of a UN Security Council resolution which would have required the Assad regime to co-operate with an independent inquiry into the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib Province while maintaining, “We will insist that a decision be made on conducting an impartial investigation both at the attack site and the air base.”
UPDATE 1630 GMT: A team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has been sent to Turkey to collect biometric samples as part of an investigation into the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun.
The team will also interview survivors.
UPDATE 1015 GMT: A “senior US official” has said that the American military and intelligence community intercepted communications among the Assad regime’s military and chemical experts talking about preparations for last week’s chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun in northwest Syria.
The official said that US did not have prior knowledge of the attack. The communications among the regime experts were sifted after the incident from the large volume of intercepts.
So far there are no intelligence intercepts that have confirmed any Russian discussion of the forthcoming attack, which killed more than 100 people and wounded almost 600. The official said the Russians are more careful in their communications to avoid interception.
The US now assesses that the Assad regime re-established a unit of personnel associated with chemical weapons before the 2013 agreement, following the regime’s killing of more than 1,400 people near Damascus in sarin attacks, in which President Assad pledged to give up chemical stocks and facilities.
“We know they have the expertise. And we suspect that they have help,” a US military official said. He continued:
We know the Russians have chemical expertise in-country. We cannot talk about openly any complicity between the Russians and the Syrian regime in this — in this case, but we’re carefully assessing any information that would implicate the Russians knew or assisted with the Syrian capability.
The official said the most specific evidence of Russian involvement remains a Russian drone that flew over the hospital that was treating people injured in the attack. A Russian-made warplane then struck the facility, knocking it out of service.
ORIGINAL ENTRY: Russia has taken a tough line over its protection of Syria’s President Assad, knocking back a US approach and vetoing a UN Security Council resolution demanding that the Assad regime permit an independent investigation of last week’s deadly chemical attack in the northwest of the country.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, representing the G7 countries, tried on Wednesday to separate the Russians from their essential support of Assad. However, President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov not only publicly rejected the attempt but tried to divert blame from the regime over the use of a hybrid nerve agent and chlorine on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib Province, an assault which killed more than 100 people and brought retaliatory American missile strikes on a regime airbase.
Tillerson, who saw Putin for 110 minutes, emphasized cooperation despite saying that relations with Moscow are “at a low point with a low level of trust”. He said that a “productive” discussion was based on common ground such as belief in a “unified and unified Syria” and “denying a safe haven for terrorists”, and that both sides had agreed on consulting allies to find “a way forward” in the conflict.
The Secretary of State was careful in his framing of the demand — a reversal of White House policy from just before the chemical attack — that Assad step aside. He said Washington would not dictate how Assad’s departure takes place, “We leave that to the process going forward,” adding that it was important this was “done in an orderly way” with “a pace of its own”.
In contrast, Lavrov challenged Tillerson’s assertion of “conclusive” evidence over the chemical attack and focused on Russia’s attempt to distance the Assad regime from it. Labelling the analysis of evidence so far as “unfounded”, he called for an international inquiry — later blocked by Moscow in the Security Council vote — and tried to label the US as the obstacle to progress:
I would like to stress that we are 100 percent sure that, if our colleagues in the UN or in The Hague will steer away from this investigation, it will basically mean that they do not want to find out the truth.
Lavrov warned against any further US strikes on Assad regime positions, while announcing that Putin had agreed to reinstate the channel of “deconfliction” between the two sides to ensure no accidental clashes in the skies above Syria.
The Foreign Minister did gave the Americans a glimmer of a possibility when he said about Assad’s future that Russia is “not staking everything on a personality”: “We are simply insisting that everybody sits around the table and talks about it.”
Russia Blocks Investigation of Chemical Attack
In New York, Russia blocked any demand that the Assad regime cooperate with the UN and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, through the veto in the Security Council.
The vote was 10-2, with three abstentions. Only Bulgaria joined the Russians, and China — which has aligned itself with Russia on six of seven previous vetoes of resolutions on the Syrian conflict — abstained.
The draft by the US, France, and UK mandated the regime to cooperate with inspectors chosen by the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, give prompt and unrestricted access to “any and all sites”, provide flight plans and logs they request, and give the names of military officers “in command of any aircraft” to be investigated. The regime must also “arrange meetings requested, including with generals or other officers, within no more than five days of the date on which such meeting is requested”.
“Russia once again has chosen to side with Assad, even as the rest of the world, including the Arab world, overwhelmingly comes together to condemn this murderous regime,” US Ambassador Nikki Haley said. “If the regime is innocent, as Russia claims, the information requested in this resolution would have vindicated them.”
British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft added another piece of information, revealing that UK scientists have tested samples from Khan Sheikhoun and found them positive for the nerve gas sarin.
Russian Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov did not address the contradiction between Russia’s call for an inquiry and its rejection of the investigation. Instead, he criticized the presentation by the US, Britain, and other countries of the evidence to date, “I’m amazed that [Assad’s responsibility] was the conclusion. No one has yet visited the site of the crime. How do you know that?”
Just before Tillerson’s meetings, the Pentagon had put pressure on Russia and the Assad regime with a four-page summary setting out some of the intelligence on the Khan Sheikhoun attack and rebuffing Moscow’s attempts at unsupported, diversionary explanations.
Defense Secretary James Mattis said there was “no doubt” about Assad’s responsibility given signals and geospatial intelligence, including satellite imagery of the site and radar tracking of the Su-22 jet fighter which fired the missile with chemical munitions; physiological samples from the victims; and the body of open source evidence.
At the UN, Haley maintained the effort to distance Moscow from Assad: “To my colleagues from Russia – you are isolating yourselves from the international community every time one of Assad’s planes drop another barrel bomb on civilians and every time Assad tries to starve another community to death.”
TOP PHOTO: Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Moscow on Wednesday
US: We Accidentally Killed 18 SDF Troops
The US-led coalition has acknowledged killing 18 personnel of the Kurdish-led, US-support Syrian Democratic Forces in an airstrike on Tuesday.
The coalition said warplanes were called in by “partnered forces”, who identified the target as an Islamic State position, south of Tabqa in Raqqa Province.
In fact, the site was a forward Syrian Democratic Forces fighting position, the statement said.
Local sources said the attacked troops were in an Arab element of the SDF. After the incident, the leading Arab group Raqqa Hawks said it was leaving the SDF, accusing the YPG of giving the coordinates of the forward unit to the coalition.
An Amnesty International report in October 2015 said that the Kurdish militia YPG, which leads the SDF, threatened to call in US airstrikes if villagers in Arab communities refused to leave.
The coalition said it “is assessing the cause of the incident and will implement appropriate safeguards to prevent similar incidents in the future”.
The SDF is trying to move on Raqqa, ISIS’s main position in northern Syria, with the assistance of American airstrikes, special forces, armored vehicles, and weapons and equipment.