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World powers step up pressure on Syria, Russia over chemical attacks

Rex Tillerson

Paris, France | AFP | Two dozen countries agreed Tuesday to push for sanctions against perpetrators of chemical attacks in Syria, with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying Russia “ultimately bears responsibility” for such strikes.

Twenty-four nations approved a new “partnership against impunity” for the use of chemical weapons, just a day after reports they were used in an attack that sickened 21 people in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, which Tillerson said was suspected to involve chlorine.

“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,” Tillerson said after the international meeting in Paris, and ahead of further talks with ministers from several countries on ending the conflict.

“There is simply no denying that Russia, by shielding its Syrian ally, has breached its commitments to the US as a framework guarantor” overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, as agreed in September 2013, he added.

Despite its pledge to destroy such weapons, the Syrian regime has been repeatedly accused of staging chemical attacks, with the United Nations among those blaming it for an April 2017 sarin gas attack on the opposition-held village of Khan Sheikhun which left scores dead.

There have been at least 130 separate chemical weapons attacks in Syria since 2012, according to French estimates, with the Islamic State group also accused of using mustard gas in Syria and Iraq.

– ‘Bare minimum’ –
Russia twice used its UN veto in November to block an extension of an international expert inquiry into chemical attacks in Syria, to the consternation of Western powers.

Russia’s UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia Tuesday rejected Tillerson’s accusations and instead called for a “truly impartial” international investigation of the chemical attacks.

Moscow, backed by Iran and Turkey, has organised talks in the Russian city of Sochi next week aimed at finding a resolution to the brutal and multifaceted civil war.

Those efforts are running parallel to talks overseen by the UN, with the latest round due in Vienna on Thursday and Friday.

The talks have so far failed to make progress in ending a war that has left more than 340,000 people dead.

Tillerson said that “Russia’s failure to resolve the chemical weapons issue in Syria calls into question its relevance to the resolution of the overall crisis”.

“At a bare minimum, Russia must stop vetoing, or at the very least abstain, from future Security Council votes on this issue,” he said.

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