By Michael Schwirtz
January 23, 2018
The United States on Tuesday accused Syria’s government of a chlorine gas attack on civilians in the same rebel enclave hit more than four years ago by the deadliest known chemical assault in the Syrian war.
In sharp denunciations from Ambassador Nikki R. Haley at the United Nations and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson in Paris, the Americans also rebuked Russia for what they called its failure to stop such assaults, which under international law are war crimes. The Russians called the American accusations “baseless.”
The chlorine attack happened Monday in Eastern Ghouta, an insurgent redoubt near Syria’s capital, Damascus, that has defied President Bashar al-Assad’s forces since the war began nearly seven years ago. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said at least 13 people were hurt by rockets loaded with chlorine gas. Others said 21 were sickened.
Eastern Ghouta was the target on Aug. 21, 2013, of an attack using lethal sarin nerve agent, which by some estimates killed 1,400 people. That assault stunned the world and led President Barack Obama, who had called the use of chemical weapons a “red line,” to threaten military retaliation on Mr. Assad’s forces.
Although Mr. Assad denied he was responsible, he agreed to destroy his chemical arms stockpile and promised to never use such weapons by joining the treaty banning them, under a deal brokered by Russia and the United States that averted the threatened American reprisal.
Mr. Obama’s critics say his reluctance to use force at that time was a mistake, considering the repeated instances of chemical weapons use in Syria since then.
As of Tuesday, there was no definitive confirmation of who had carried out the East Ghouta chlorine attack. Bassam Khabieh, a freelance photographer working for Reuters, was in the vicinity and said in an interview that it occurred between 5:30 and 6:00 on Monday morning. By the time he arrived, he said, a chlorine smell hung in the air and dead cats littered the ground. All the victims had already been taken to the hospital, he said.
The Douma Medical Center in East Ghouta said 21 people, including six children, had been admitted by the Ambulance Department at the Damascus Countryside Specialty Hospital at 6 a.m.
It was at least the second time chlorine assaults were reported in Syria this month, with no provision for establishing who was responsible. The United Nations Security Council’s panel for investigating such attacks was disbanded two months ago in a political showdown between Russia and the United States.
In a statement, Ms. Haley said that Russia bore some responsibility for the latest attacks because of its decision to veto the renewal of the panel, known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism. Russia said the panel had been biased and unprofessional, accusations that the United States and its allies angrily disputed.
By halting the work of the investigative body, Russia sent a “dangerous message to the world,” Ms. Haley said on Tuesday, “one that not only said chemical weapons use is acceptable but also that those who use chemical weapons don’t need to be identified or held accountable.”
Mr. Tillerson also criticized what he called Syria’s continued use of chemical weapons in the war and what he described as Russia’s complicity.
No matter who was behind the East Ghouta chlorine attack, Mr. Tillerson said, Russia was responsible because of its 2013 deal with the United States that had guaranteed Syria would eliminate chemical weapons.
“There is simply no denying that Russia, by shielding its Syrian ally, has breached its commitments to the United States as a framework guarantor,” Mr. Tillerson said. “Russia’s failure to resolve the chemical weapons issue in Syria calls into question its relevance to the resolution to the overall crisis.”
Mr. Tillerson was speaking at a Paris meeting of envoys from France and more than 20 other nations to establish a new organization intended to identify and punish any government or group that uses chemical weapons.
The Russians delivered their rejoinder on Tuesday afternoon at the United Nations, where Ambassador Vassily A. Nebenzia convened an unscheduled session of the Security Council.
Apologizing to fellow diplomats for “spoiling your siesta,” Mr. Nebenzia called the American criticism “the latest baseless accusations against Russia.”
“Representatives from the U.S.A. and United Kingdom without a moment’s hesitation and before any confirmation, not to mention an investigation, rushed to declare that the Syrian ‘regime,’ as they call it was involved,” he said. “Now, they are also trying to drag Russia into this.”
He said Russia had prepared a resolution that would create a new panel to succeed the Joint Investigative Mechanism, which would be “professional and apolitical.”
Ms. Haley described the Russian resolution as an attempt to “distract” from the new initiative announced in Paris.
“Russia should look in the mirror before bringing us into the Security Council to talk about chemical weapons,” she said.
During its two years of work, the Joint Investigative Mechanism found that the Syrian government and the Islamic State had used chemical weapons against civilians.
Russia, which has staunchly defended Mr. Assad, both on the battlefield and at the United Nations, has never conceded that his forces used chemical weapons in the conflict.
In particular, Moscow objected to the investigative panel’s conclusions that Mr. Assad’s forces had carried out a sarin attack on the rebel-held village of Khan Sheikhoun last April that killed at least 83 people and sickened roughly 300.
Russia called the Khan Sheikhoun findings “nonsense.”
But the attack led President Trump to order a cruise missile strike on an airfield that American intelligence officials said had been used by Mr. Assad’s air force to strike Khan Sheikhoun.
The Trump administration said its missile retaliation had sent a strong message to Mr. Assad not to use chemical weapons again. Last June, Ms. Haley told Congress that the White House’s willingness to use force had dissuaded the Syrian government from another attack and had “saved innocent lives.”
It was not clear from the remarks by Mr. Tillerson and Ms. Haley on Tuesday whether the United States was prepared to respond militarily to the East Ghouta attack.
During his campaign for president, Mr. Trump criticized his predecessor’s decision to avoid military action after the 2013 sarin assault, describing it as a sign of weakness that emboldened Mr. Assad.
Rick Gladstone and Barbara Marcolini contributed reporting from New York, and Gardiner Harris from Washington.