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US blames Russia for chemical attacks in Syria

January 23, 2018

Washington's top diplomat has accused Moscow of breaching "its commitments" to destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles, following reports of a new attack near Damascus. Syria has dismissed the reports as "lies."

A foreign worker examining chemical weapons in Syria, 2013
Syria agreed to hand over its chemical weapons to be destroyed in 2013Image: picture-alliance/dpa

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday said Russia bore the responsibility of Syria's continued use of chemical weapons after aid workers earlier this week reported an attack in Eastern Ghouta, the last rebel bastion near Damascus.

"Only yesterday, more than 20 civilians, mostly children, were victims of an apparent chlorine gas attack," Tillerson said in the wake of a Paris conference on chemical weapons.

Read more: Are US and Russia inching toward confrontation in Syria?

"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."

Since joining the conflict in 2015, Russia has twice vetoed UN Security Council resolutions aimed at extending independent investigations into chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

"There is simply no denying that Russia, by shielding its Syrian ally, has breached its commitments to the US as a framework guarantor" of the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles, Tillerson added.

More than 160 chemical weapons attacks have been reported in Syria since the start of the conflict in 2011
More than 160 chemical weapons attacks have been reported in Syria since the start of the conflict in 2011Image: picture-alliance/ZUMAPRESS/M. Taim

'Dirty and false' accusations

In turn, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov dismissed the claims as a smear campaign.

"The fact that they keep repeating these dirty and false accusations against us, only shows the level of the US diplomacy," Ryabkov told the Interfax news agency. The diplomat also said US was using the accusations to hamper Russia's peace efforts.

The Damascus regime said the reports of the attack were "lies" and a part of "the systematic aggressive and hostile policy of the West towards Syria," according to Syria's foreign ministry.

Syrian authorities have repeatedly denied using chemical weapons on their territory.

'Partnership against impunity'

In a bid to curb the use of chemical weapons in Syria, 24 countries on Tuesday backed a new "partnership against impunity" for their use.

The countries said they will share information and compile a list of individuals implicated in chemical weapons attacks in the war-ravaged country.

Read more: Syria conflict: What do the US, Russia, Turkey and Iran want?

Hours before the conference, France said it froze the assets of 25 Syrian companies and executives, alongside French, Chinese and Lebanese enterprises that allegedly provided assistance to the Syrian government in the use of chemical weapons.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement that the situation "cannot continue" in Syria.

"The criminals who take the responsibility for using and developing these barbaric weapons must know that they will not go unpunished," Le Drian said.

Enduring arms legacy

In December 2014, investigators of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) started to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons stockpile as part of a UN Security Council resolution passed the year before.

Read more: As Syrian war nears end, some can never go home again

However, the Syrian government has been accused of continuing to use chlorine, a common chemical whose misuse as a weapon is banned, as well as  misrepresenting its stockpile of chemical weapons required to be declared to the OPCW. Last year, a chemical weapons attack in rebel-held Khan Sheikhoun prompted the US to launch cruise missiles at a government airbase.

A UN-backed independent investigation said the Syrian regime was responsible for the attack in Khan Sheikhoun, which left 87 people dead, including 30 children.

ls,dj/se (AFP, Reuters, AP)