A United Nations convey is checked at an army checkpoint outside a Palestinian refugee camp. (Photographer: Wael Ladki/Bloomberg News.)

Russia Hints Support for a UN Probe Into Syria Chemical Strike

(Bloomberg) -- Russia’s United Nations ambassador hinted his country may accept a Security Council resolution to investigate suspected chemical attacks in Syria, while also suggesting that a deadly assault over the weekend either never happened or was orchestrated by the U.S.

A draft resolution circulated on Monday by the U.S. would set up a new body to investigate chemical weapons attacks like the one it says occurred over the weekend in Douma, near Damascus. Rescue workers say dozens of civilians were killed there. The draft resolution would give UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres 30 days to pull together the body and urged Syria to cooperate.

“Of course we need to get to the bottom of what is taking place, however we need to do so in an honest way,” Russia’s ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, told the council, indicating a willingness to accept a Swedish proposal for a narrower inquiry into what happened in Douma.

Earlier Monday, President Donald Trump said he’ll decide within two days on possible American retaliation against Syria for the attack. U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley didn’t raise the prospect of military action directly but hinted the U.S. may not wait for the findings of a UN investigation.

“Russia’s obstructionism will not continue to hold us hostage,” Haley told the Security Council. “Important decisions are being weighed as we speak.”

The debate only underscored the huge differences between the U.S., France, the U.K. and their allies on one side, and Russia, whose military backing of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad helped turn that country’s civil war to his favor.

Nebenzia argued before the Security Council that investigators had found no evidence of an attack -- and that there was evidence that the U.S. was training fighters to conduct just such attacks to create the pretext for a military operation. He said Syrian forces, backed by Russian troops, were willing to offer protections to investigators to visit Douma.

“I call upon those who will speak against me slandering the regime to proceed from the presence that there was no chemical attack,” Nebenzia said, adding later that “the footage that was shown was clearly staged.”

Nebenzia’s remarks were sharply criticized by other diplomats on the council. The U.K.’s ambassador accused him of crying “crocodile tears” over the dead in Douma and said Russia was trying to distract from the chemical assault by portraying itself as a victim.

‘Murderous Regime’

The sharpest criticism of Russia came from Haley, who said Russia could stop the slaughter in Syria but refused to do so.

“What’s the point of trying to shame such people?” Haley said. “After all, no civilized government would have anything to do with Assad’s murderous regime.”

Haley and other ambassadors decried what they called the continuing normalization of chemical weapons attacks, citing the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain; the assassination in Malaysia of a half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un; and the continuing attacks in Syria.

“The stakes revolving around this recent attack are extremely grave,” France’s UN Ambassador Francois Delattre said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.