24 NATIONS have agreed to push for sanctions against perpetrators of chemical attacks in Syria with US Secretary of State Tillerson saying that Russia ultimately bears responsibility for such strikes.
The twenty-four nations approved a new ‘partnership against impunity’ for the use of chemical weapons, just a day after reports they were allegedly used in an attack that sickened 21 people in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, which Tillerson said was suspected to involve chlorine.
‘Whoever conducted the attacks, Russia ultimately bears responsibility for the victims in East Ghouta and countless other Syrians targeted with chemical weapons since Russia became involved in Syria,’ Tillerson said after the international meeting in Paris, and ahead of further talks with ministers from several countries on ending the conflict.
‘There is simply no denying that Russia, by shielding its Syrian ally, has breached its commitments to the US as a framework guarantor’ overseeing the destruction of Syria”s chemical weapons stockpiles, as agreed in September 2013, he added.
Despite destroying all its stocks of such weapons, the Syrian government has been repeatedly accused of staging chemical attacks, with the United Nations among those blaming it for an April 2017 sarin gas attack on the opposition-held village of Khan Sheikhun which left scores dead.
There have been at least 130 separate chemical weapons attacks in Syria since 2012, according to French estimates, with the Islamic State group also accused of using mustard gas in Syria and Iraq. Russia twice used its UN veto in November to block an extension of an inquiry into chemical attacks in Syria, to the consternation of Western powers.
Moscow, backed by Iran and Turkey, has organised talks in the Russian city of Sochi next week aimed at finding a resolution to the brutal and multifaceted civil war. Those efforts are running parallel to talks overseen by the UN, with the latest round held in Vienna yesterday and today.
The talks have so far failed to make progress in ending a war that has left more than 340,000 people dead.
Tillerson said that ‘Russia’s failure to resolve the chemical weapons issue in Syria calls into question its relevance to the resolution of the overall crisis’. ‘At a bare minimum, Russia must stop vetoing, or at the very least abstain, from future Security Council votes on this issue,’ he said.
At Tuesday’s meeting, 24 out of 29 countries attending committed to sharing information and compiling a list of individuals implicated in the use of chemical weapons in Syria and beyond. These could then be hit with sanctions such as asset freezes and entry bans as well as criminal proceedings at the national level.
Ahead of the meeting, France announced asset freezes against 25 Syrian companies and executives, as well as French, Lebanese and Chinese businesses accused of aiding Syrian use of chemical weapons.
‘The criminals who take the responsibility for using and developing these barbaric weapons must know that they will not go unpunished,’ said French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who chaired Tuesday’s meeting. The current situation cannot continue.’
Tillerson, Le Drian and Britain’s Boris Johnson afterwards held a closed-door meeting on Syria with the Saudi and Jordanian foreign ministers. They discussed how best to ‘provide backing and some concrete reinforcement for UN efforts to advance the political process in Geneva, constitutional reform and the preparation for the holding of elections’, ahead of a series of meetings on Syria, a senior US State Department official said, warning that ‘it’s going to take time’.
Johnson later hosted his US, Saudi Arabian and UAE counterparts at the British Embassy to discuss the Yemen conflict in a whirlwind of Middle Eastern diplomacy. ‘The conflicts in Syria and Yemen have created two of the worst humanitarian crises of our time,’ Johnson said ahead of the meeting. ‘There can be no military solution to either conflict, only peaceful and carefully negotiated political solutions will truly end the suffering.’
The Syrian war has grown even more complex in recent days with Turkey launching a new ground operation against Kurdish militias who it considers an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Tillerson met with Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Paris on Tuesday, though he did not hold a press conference to discuss their talks.
Last week, Tillerson had warned that the US would remain in Syria until the situation was stable enough to remove President Bashar al-Assad from office. Russia submitted a draft resolution to the UN Security Council on establishing a new international investigative body on the use of chemical weapons in Syria to replace the OPCW-UN joint investigative mechanism (JIM).
In a statement at the Security Council during a meeting held on Tuesday, Russia’s permanent representative to the UN Vasily Nebenzia said that the new body must be professional and not politicised and it should depend in its work on impeccable and irrefutable data obtained in a transparent and credible way.
Nebenzia added that the previous investigative mechanism failed in conducting objective investigations and had become a tool for political manipulation in the hands of some states. He noted that Moscow is worried about the fact that terrorists possess the means for manufacturing chemical weapons.
He called upon the Security Council’s member states to view the Russian draft resolution which was distributed on Monday as one of the official documents of the Council. The Russian diplomat slammed the US allegations that Russia is hindering investigations into the incidents of using chemical weapons in Syria, indicating that the US accuses Russia and Syria when talking about any case of using toxic substances without waiting for professional and transparent investigations.
Nebenzia said that the US seeks to hinder any progress in the political process which aims at resolving the crisis in Syria. He added that the US showed its true face to the international community as it doesn’t want any professional independent investigative mechanism.
Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov stressed his country’s rejection of the US approach which depends on procrastination with regard to the investigations into chemical attacks on Syria, indicating that the US lays charges without evidence or investigation.
In a statement to journalists on Wednesday, Peskov said, ‘In general, we categorically reject the US approach as they procrastinate in the international investigations into previous incidents and they prefer to lay charges without any basis.’ He indicated that the US works on stopping investigation into the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Answering a question on statements by the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in which he accused Russia and Syria of using chemical weapons, and on the call to respond to the statement of the US permanent representative to the UN, Peskov said: ‘You know that our stances are completely contradicted in this regard with the US stance, which continues hindering international investigations into previous issues of using such weapons.’