World powers step up pressure on Syria, Russia over chemical attacks
World powers step up pressure on Syria, Russia over chemical attacks
Twenty-four nations approved a new “partnership against impunity” for the use of chemical weapons, just a day after reports that they were used in an attack that sickened 21 people in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta.
“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 meeting, and ahead of further talks with several ministers 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 Daesh group also accused of using mustard gas in Syria and Iraq.
Russia twice used its UN veto in November to veto an extension of an international expert inquiry into chemical attacks in Syria, to the consternation of Western powers.
Moscow, backed by Iran and Turkey, has organized talks in the Russian city of Sochi next week aimed at finding a resolution to the brutal and multi-faceted 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 vetoeing, or at the very least abstain, from future Security Council votes on this issue,” he said.
At Tuesday’s meeting, 24 out of 29 countries attending committed to sharing information and compiling a list of individuals implicated in the use of chemical weapons in Syria and beyond.
These could then be hit with sanctions such as asset freezes and entry bans as well as criminal proceedings at the national level.
Ahead of the meeting France announced asset freezes against 25 Syrian companies and executives, as well as French, Lebanese and Chinese businesses accused of aiding regime use of chemical weapons.
“The criminals who take the responsibility for using and developing these barbaric weapons must know that they will not go unpunished,” said French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who chaired Tuesday’s meeting.
Tillerson, Le Drian and several other ministers including Britain’s Boris Johnson were due to meet for further talks laying the groundwork for a new contact group on Syria that French President Emmanuel Macron has been urging for months.
Macron wants the new contact group to bring together the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the US — along with regional countries to find a solution.
Johnson said he was also set to host his US, Saudi Arabian and UAE counterparts at the British Embassy to discuss the Yemen conflict in a whirlwind of Middle Eastern diplomacy.
A meeting later Tuesday in Paris, attended by Tillerson as well as British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, is designed to “find pathways toward and the means for a true political transition with the support of major powers, essentially the P5 and countries in the region directly affected,” an aide to Le Drian said.
“The conflicts in Syria and Yemen have created two of the worst humanitarian crises of our time,” he said.
“There can be no military solution to either conflict, only peaceful and carefully negotiated political solutions will truly end the suffering.”
The Syrian war has grown even more complex in recent days with Turkey launching a new ground operation against Kurdish militia who it considers an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Masked attackers kill five Syria rescuers: White Helmets
- The White Helmets said armed men stormed the Al-Hader center in a pre-dawn attack and fired on the first responders inside.
- Four volunteers were killed on the spot and a fifth died later in hospital.
BEIRUT: Five Syrian rescue workers were killed in an attack by masked assailants Saturday on one of their centers in the northern province of Aleppo, the White Helmets said.
The White Helmets said armed men stormed the Al-Hader center in a pre-dawn attack and fired on the first responders inside.
Four volunteers were killed on the spot and a fifth died later in hospital, it wrote on Twitter.
Founded in 2013, the White Helmets are a network of first responders who rescue wounded in the aftermath of air strikes, shelling or blasts in rebel-held territory.
The Al-Hader center lies in a part of Aleppo province controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), an extremist organization whose main component was once Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
“At around 2:00 am, an armed group stormed the Al-Hader center, blindfolded the staff members who were on the night shift, and killed five of them,” said Ahmad Al-Hamish, who heads the center.
“Two others were wounded and another two were able to flee. The attackers were masked and escaped after stealing some equipment and generators,” he said.
It was unclear whether the attack was a robbery-gone-wrong or if the center and its crew had been specifically targeted.
More than 200 White Helmets rescuers have been killed in Syria’s seven-year war, usually in bombing raids or shelling on their centers.
While attacks like the one on Saturday are rare, they have happened before.
In August, seven White Helmets members were killed in a similar attack in the town of Sarmin, in neighboring Idlib province.
Most of Idlib is held by HTS, as well as a part of Aleppo and the adjacent province of Hama.
Tensions are on the rise there, with a wave of intra-opposition assassinations and clashes leaving at least 20 rebels dead in 48 hours, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“You cannot separate the Al-Hader incident from the assassinations and other killings that have been happening more and more in recent weeks in areas under HTS control,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.
The population of Idlib province has swelled to more than two million people as a result of massive transfers of rebels and civilians from onetime opposition zones elsewhere in the country.
The killings come as the White Helmets are facing a “freeze” on funding from the United States, which is still reviewing over $200 million earmarked for stabilization in Syria.