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Great Powers and Syria, again

UNITED NATIONS — Russia on Tuesday cast its seventh veto to protect the Syrian government from United Nations Security Council action, blocking a bid by Western powers to impose sanctions over accusations of chemical weapons attacks during the six-year Syrian conflict.

China backed Russia and cast its sixth veto on Syria. Russia had said the vote on the resolution, drafted by France, Britain and the United States, would harm U.N.-led peace talks between the warring Syrian parties in Geneva, which began last week.

Nine council members voted in favor, Bolivia voted against, while Egypt, Ethiopia and Kazakhstan abstained. A resolution needs nine votes in favor and no vetoes by the United States, France, Russia, Britain or China to be adopted.

Russian President Vladimir Putin described the draft resolution on Tuesday as “totally inappropriate.”

“For my friends in Russia, this resolution is very appropriate,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the council after the vote.

“It is a sad day on the Security Council when members start making excuses for other member states killing their own people. The world is definitely a more dangerous place,” she said.

The vote was one of the first confrontations at the United Nations between Russia and the United States since U.S. President Donald Trump took office in January, pledging to build closer ties with Moscow.

Russia’s Deputy U.N. Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov described the statements made against Moscow in the Security Council as “outrageous” and declared that “God will judge you.”

“Today’s clash or confrontation is not a result of our negative vote. It is a result of the fact that you decided on provocation while you knew well ahead of time our position,” said Safronkov.

Western powers put forward the resolution in response to the results of an investigation by the U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

The international inquiry found Syrian government forces were responsible for three chlorine gas attacks and that Islamic State militants had used mustard gas.

British U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft told the council before the vote: “This is about taking a stand when children are poisoned. It’s that simple. It’s about taking a stand when civilians are maimed and murdered with toxic weapons.”

Chlorine’s use as a weapon is banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria joined in 2013. If inhaled, chlorine gas turns to hydrochloric acid in the lungs and can kill by burning lungs and drowning victims in body fluids.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government has denied its forces have used chemical weapons. Russia has questioned the results of the U.N./OPCW inquiry and long said there was not enough proof for the Security Council to take any action.

French U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre said the failure by the council to act would “send a message of impunity.”

China’s U.N. Ambassador Liu Jieyi said it was too early to act because the international investigation was still ongoing.

“We oppose the use of chemical weapons,” he said.

The draft resolution would have banned the sale or supply of helicopters to the Syrian government because the U.N./OPCW inquiry found Syrian government forces had used helicopters to drop barrel bombs containing chlorine gas.

It also proposed targeted sanctions – a travel ban and asset freeze – on 11 Syrian military commanders and officials, as well as on 10 government and related entities.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by James Dalgleish)

UNITED NATIONS — Russia and the Trump administration clashed in a vote at the United Nations Security Council for the first time on Tuesday, as the Kremlin vetoed a measure backed by the Americans to punish Syria for using chemical weapons.

While the Russians had long signaled their intent to block the resolution, which was supported by dozens of countries, including the United States, the clash offered insights into the big divides that remain between the Kremlin and President Trump, who has vowed to improve ties.

The vote in the 15-member council was nine in favor and three against. Opponents included Russia and China, two of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Council, and Bolivia, a nonpermanent member. Three nonpermanent members — Egypt, Ethiopia and Kazakhstan — abstained.

It was the Kremlin’s seventh Security Council veto in defense of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria over the war that has been convulsing his country for nearly six years.

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The American ambassador, Nikki R. Haley, who has called chemical weapons attacks in Syria “barbaric,” accused Russia and China of putting “their friends in the Assad regime ahead of our global security” in her blunt rebuke of the vetoes.

“It’s a sad day for the Security Council when members make excuses for other member states killing their own people,” she said in the Council chambers.

The resolution, proposed by Britain and France months ago and endorsed by the United States last week, would have imposed sanctions on a handful of Syrian military officials and entities for having dropped chlorine-filled barrel bombs on opposition-held areas on at least three occasions in 2014 and 2015, according to a United Nations panel.

Russia’s envoy, Vladimir Safronkov, defended the veto, calling the resolution “politically biased” and asserting that Russia’s concerns about the draft language had not been addressed. “This is railroading the draft by the Western troika,” he said.

China’s ambassador, Liu Jieyi, recalling the now-discredited American warnings of Iraq’s “so-called W.M.D.s” in 2003, criticized the resolution as an example of “hypocrisy” by the Western powers. “It was forced through to a vote while Council members still have differences,” he said. “This is in no way helpful to finding a solution.”

Chlorine is banned as a weapon under an international treaty that Mr. Assad’s government signed in 2013.

The arguments and vote over the resolution were important because they provided new insight into how Mr. Trump, who has made clear his intent to improve ties with Russia, would deal with the Kremlin over the Syria war. Russia is Mr. Assad’s most important foreign ally.

The conflict over the resolution was in sharp contrast to a Russian-American consensus on the need to contain Syria’s use of chemical weapons. After a sarin gas attack on a suburb of Damascus in August 2013, Moscow and Washington struck a deal to force Mr. Assad to sign the chemical weapons treaty and dismantle his stockpile of the poisonous munitions under international supervision.

The Syrian government, though, violated the deal, according to a United Nations panel set up by the Security Council, known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism. It found that the government had used chemical weapons at least three times.

Russia helped to create the panel but questioned its findings when it implicated the Syrian government. The panel also found that Islamic State militants in Syria used mustard gas in August 2015.

Moscow made clear last week that it would defeat the draft measure to impose sanctions on the Syrian government, calling it unbalanced. The Russian veto signaled how far Russia was willing to go to shield its ally in Damascus.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia reinforced his opposition on Tuesday, adding that any Security Council penalties on the Syrian government would complicate diplomatic efforts underway in Geneva aimed at halting the war.

“As for sanctions against the Syrian leadership, I think the move is totally inappropriate now,” he told a news conference while visiting Kyrgyzstan. “It does not help, would not help the negotiation process. It would only hurt or undermine confidence during the process.”

Human Rights Watch concluded in a recent report that the Syrian military had not only violated its promises not to use chemical weapons but had systematically dropped chlorine bombs in the final weeks of the battle to take the northern city of Aleppo last fall.

Mr. Trump repeatedly has expressed admiration for Mr. Putin and said he wanted to strike a deal with him to stop the war in Syria and focus on fighting terrorism. But disagreements within Mr. Trump’s administration appear to have complicated that goal.

Ms. Haley has taken a hard line against Russia. She condemned what she called Russia’s “aggressive actions” in eastern Ukraine, vowed to maintain sanctions related to the Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and in her Senate confirmation hearing, went as far as saying that Russia was guilty of war crimes in Syria.

Her comments on Russia, often directly contradicting her boss, echo the talking points of the previous administration of Barack Obama, but they also reflect the concerns of Republicans in Congress, who distrust the Kremlin.

Ms. Haley was in Washington on Monday for meetings at the White House. A former governor of South Carolina, she has by her own admission limited foreign policy experience.

She has so far kept her comments limited to a handful of foreign policy issues that plainly deliver political dividends at home. She has maintained a tough line on Russia and Iran, pledged to defend Israel, and promised more oversight into how American funding for the United Nations is spent.

She has said nothing about the Trump administration’s travel ban on refugees and visa applicants from seven predominantly Muslim countries, which the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, has criticized.

Ms. Haley, an American of Indian descent who grew up in a small South Carolina town, also has been silent on the attack on two Indian engineers in Kansas last week, which was suspected to be a hate crime and which threatens to cloud Indian-American relations.

State Department and U.S.-China Relations

Secretary Tillerson’s Meeting With State Councilor of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Yang Jiechi


Office of the Spokesperson
Washington, DC
February 28, 2017

The below is attributable to Acting Spokesperson Mark Toner:

United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met today with Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi and affirmed the importance of a constructive bilateral relationship and of regular high-level engagement between the United States and China. The Secretary and the State Councilor discussed the importance of improving and maintaining a mutually beneficial economic relationship between the two largest economies in the world. They also discussed areas of mutual concern, including North Korea’s nuclear programs. The State Councilor extended an invitation for the Secretary to visit Beijing, and the Secretary thanked the State Councilor and indicated an interest in such a visit in the near future.