US ‘gravely alarmed’ after fresh Syria chemical weapons attack

Syrians reportedly suffering from breathing difficulties following Syrian regime air strikes on the northwestern town of Saraqeb at a field hospital in a village on the outskirts of Saraqeb, due to the lack of hospitals in the town, on February 4, 2018. (AFP / OMAR HAJ KADOUR)

Syrians reportedly suffering from breathing difficulties following Syrian regime air strikes on the northwestern town of Saraqeb at a field hospital in a village on the outskirts of Saraqeb, due to the lack of hospitals in the town, on February 4, 2018. (AFP / OMAR HAJ KADOUR)

Days after warning new strikes on table, Washington says six chlorine gas attacks reported in last 30 days, accuses Russia of covering for Assad regime

UNITED NATIONS — The US said it was “gravely alarmed’ by reports of chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian regime Monday, as it accused Russia of protecting Syrian President Bashar Assad from responsibility for the use of chlorine gas against civilians in recent weeks.

The State Department was responding to reports of a gas attack in the town of Saraqeb near Idlib, Sunday, where several civilians reported trouble breathing after a regime sortie.

“This attack is the sixth such reported instance in the past 30 days in Syria. We implore the international community to speak with one voice, taking every opportunity to publicly pressure the Assad regime, and its supporters, to cease its use of chemical weapons and hold those responsible accountable for these brutal attacks,” spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement.

Nearly a dozen people were treated for breathing difficulties on Sunday after Syrian government raids on Saraqeb, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. said.

Mohammad Ghaleb Tannari, a doctor in a nearby town, said his hospital had treated 11 people.

“All the cases we received had symptoms consistent with inhaling the toxic chlorine gas, including exhaustion, difficulty breathing, and coughing,” he told AFP.

Citizens and members of the Syrian Civil Defense (known as the “White Helmets) who were wounded in Syrian regime air strikes on the northwestern town of Saraqeb after which, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights five people suffered from breathing difficulties, rest around a stove at a field hospital in a village on the outskirts of Saraqeb on February 4, 2018. (AFP/ OMAR HAJ KADOUR)

The State Department statement was the latest in a series of strong messages aimed at the Syrian regime over the reports of toxic gas usage.

On February 1, Washington said Assad’s regime could be making new chemical weapons and warned it was considering fresh strikes against the regime.

In this image provided by the US Navy, the USS Ross (DDG 71) fires a Tomahawk missile Friday, April 7, 2017, from the Mediterranean Sea. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Robert S. Price/US Navy via AP)

An official said military options against Damascus similar to those launched in April 2017 were always on the table and “always feasible.”

“He hasn’t excluded anything,” the official said of US President Donald Trump. “Using military force is something that is still considered.”

In April, the US launched dozens pf missiles at a Syrian air base to retaliate for suspected chemical attacks.

Russia blamed for Assad escaping consequences

The State Department statement Monday also accused Moscow of covering for Assad, hours after US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley sparred with her Russian counterpart in the Security Council.

Haley told the UN Security Council that Russia has delayed adoption of a council statement condemning the use of chemical weapons, including a reported chlorine gas attack Thursday in the opposition-held Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta that injured over 20 civilians including children.

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)

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia retorted, “It’s completely clear to us the goal is to basically accuse the Syrian government of chemical weapons use where no perpetrators have been identified.”

Russia proposed a rival press statement eliminating references to Thursday’s attack and to “the unacceptable level of violence in Syria, particularly in eastern Ghouta.” He proposed adding language about a new investigative body to determine responsibility for chemical attacks that is unacceptable to the US and its allies.

The US and Russia have been lashing out at each other for months over the issue of accountability for chemical attacks in Syria, which is a close ally of Moscow.

A joint investigation team comprising experts from the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons concluded that the Syrian government used chlorine gas in at least two attacks in 2014 and 2015 and used the nerve agent sarin in an aerial attack on Khan Sheikhoun last April 4 that killed about 100 people and affected about 200 others.

A Syrian medic runs for cover during the air strikes which hit a hospital in Khan Sheikhoun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, on April 4, 2017. (AFP Photo/Omar Haj Kadour)

The team also accused the Islamic State extremist group of using mustard gas in 2015 and again in September 2016 in Um Hosh in Aleppo.

Russia accepted the accusation against the IS militants but rejected the experts’ findings on the Syria government as unproven and demanded major changes in the way the expert team from the Joint Investigative Mechanism, or JIM, operates.

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley holds photos of victims as she speaks at the UN Security Council in an emergency session on April 5, 2017 about the suspected deadly chemical attack that killed civilians, including children, in Syria. (AFP/Timothy A. Clary)

The US and about 10 other council members insisted that the JIM must remain independent, but Russia used its veto to prevent its mandate from being renewed.
The result is that there is currently no way to determine responsibility for chemical attacks in Syria.

Haley said the Assad regime must immediately stop using chemical weapons.

“Our goal must be to end the use of these evil, unjustifiable weapons,” she said. “We cannot hope to end the use of chemical weapons if those who use them escape the consequences of their action.”

Haley stressed that like the JIM, a new mechanism must be independent, impartial and be “controlled by experts, not politicians or diplomats.”

She again rejected Moscow’s proposed resolution to replace the JIM, saying it ignores the JIM’s findings — “an investigation that Russia supported until the investigators found the Assad regime to be responsible.”

A picture taken on April 4, 2017 shows destruction at a hospital room in Khan Sheikhoun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, following a suspected toxic gas attack. (AFP/Omar haj kadour)

Russia also wants “to cherry pick investigators” and give the Security Council power to review the findings and decide what goes into the final report, Haley said.

UN disarmament chief Izumi Nakamitsu told the council that the OPCW is continuing to follow up on the remaining “gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies” in Syria’s declaration to the chemical weapons watchdog about its chemical weapons program.

She said OPCW experts are also looking into allegations of chemical weapons use in opposition areas and in government areas, and reports are due soon.

If the OPCW fact-finding missions conclude that chemical weapons have been used, “our obligation to enact a meaningful response will be further intensified,” Nakamitsu said.

“It is my hope, and the hope of the secretary-general that such a response will favor unity — not impunity,” she said.

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