Middle East

Syria conflict: Russia questions Syria chlorine attacks probe

A Syrian man stands next to the remains of a barrel bomb that activists say was dropped on the town of Sarmin on the night of 16 March 2015 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Bombs containing chlorine were dropped on the rebel-held town of Sarmin in March 2015

Russia has said it does not accept the findings of a UN-led investigation that concluded Syria's government had used chemical weapons against civilians.

A report said last week that chlorine had been used by President Bashar al-Assad's forces on two occasions.

But Russia, a close ally of Mr Assad, told the UN Security Council a number of questions still had to be clarified.

The UK and France, which back the rebellion against the president, called for sanctions to be imposed on Syria.

A September 2013 resolution states that the Security Council will impose measures under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which permits military action, in the event of "any use of chemical weapons by anyone" in Syria.

The resolution, which endorsed the destruction of Syria's declared stockpile of chemical weapons, was adopted a month after hundreds of people were killed when shells filled with the nerve agent sarin were fired at rebel-held suburbs of Damascus.

Western powers said only government forces could have carried out the attack, but Mr Assad and Russia blamed rebels.

'No fingerprints'

In August 2015, following further deadly chemical attacks on rebel-held areas, the Security Council established a Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) to identify those responsible.

The international team of inspectors looked into nine cases in seven towns and determined that the Syrian air force was behind two attacks involving chlorine - in Talmanes on 21 April 2014 and Sarmin on 16 March 2015 - and that jihadist militants from Islamic State (IS) carried out one attack involving sulphur mustard.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Syrian government has denied that it was behind the chemical attack on Sarmin

Chlorine is a "dual-use chemical". It has many legitimate industrial functions, but its use as a weapon is banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). If high concentrations of the chemical enter the lungs it can cause death.

At a meeting of the Security Council on Tuesday, US permanent representative Samantha Power called the JIM report a "landmark" and called for swift action.

"It is the first official independent confirmation of what many of us... have presented substantial evidence of for a long time, and that is a pattern of chemical weapons use by the Syrian regime," she said.

But Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin insisted it was too early to discuss sanctions.

"Clearly there is a smoking gun. We know that chlorine most likely has been used - that was already the finding of the fact-finding mission before - but there are no fingerprints on the gun," he said.

Syria's permanent representative Bashar Jaafari dismissed the report's conclusions, saying they were "totally based on statements made by witnesses presented by the terrorist armed groups" and "lack any physical evidence".