US and Russia set for UN showdown over Syria sarin gas inquiry

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Renewal of UN inquiry investigating sarin gas attack in Syria backed by US, but Russia may veto it

Sarin gas was used on Syrian opposition town Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April, killing dozens (AFP)
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Thursday 19 October 2017 11:03 UTC
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The United States said on Wednesday it would push the United Nations Security Council to renew within days an international inquiry into who is to blame for chemical weapons attacks in Syria, setting the stage for a likely showdown with Russia.

Russia has questioned the work and future of the joint inquiry by the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and said it would decide whether to support extending the mandate after investigators submit their next report.

The inquiry, known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), is due to report by 26 October on who was responsible for a 4 April gas attack on the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed dozens of people.

"We would like to see it renewed prior to the report coming out," US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley told reporters.

"The Russians have made it very clear that should the report blame the Syrians suddenly they won't have faith in the JIM. If the report doesn't blame the Syrians then they say that they will. We can't work like that," Haley said.

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A separate OPCW fact-finding mission determined in June that the banned nerve agent sarin had been used in the Khan Sheikhoun attack, which prompted the US to launch missiles on a Syrian air base.

The US circulated a draft resolution on Wednesday that would renew the JIM for one year and Haley said a vote should take place at the Security Council "as soon as possible".

Russia may decide to use its veto to block the draft resolution and effectively shut down the investigation of deadly gas attacks in Syria.

"It would be a shame if Russia chose to decide whether to have an investigative mechanism based on who is to blame in Khan Sheikhoun," said Haley.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres threw his weight behind the US drive to continue the investigation, telling reporters that the JIM was a "very important tool" that he fully supports. 

A resolution must get nine votes in favour and not be vetoed by any of the council's five permanent members - Russia, China, the US, Britain and France - in order to pass.

The JIM has found that Syrian government forces were responsible for three chlorine gas attacks in 2014 and 2015 and that Islamic State (IS) group militants used mustard gas.

Syria agreed to destroy its chemical weapons in 2013 under a deal brokered by Russia and the US. The Syrian government has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons during a civil war that has lasted more than six years.

Mikhail Ulyanov, director of the Russian foreign ministry's non-proliferation and arms control department, said on Friday there were "serious problems" with the work of the inquiry.

"In order to judge if it deserves an extension of the mandate, we need to see the report... and assess it," Ulyanov told a briefing at the United Nations to present Moscow's view on the "Syrian chemical dossier".