U.N. Security Council Meets on Syrian Chemical Attack; Death Toll Over 100
April 5, 2017

(Graphics Video)

UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations Security Council went into emergency talks on Wednesday after the worst chemical attack in Syria in years, as condemnation of the assault poured in and as donor nations met in Brussels and called yet again for an end to the six-year war.

“The time has come to act collectively with all necessary firmness,” France’s ambassador to the United Nations, François Delattre, told fellow Security Council members. “The world is watching us.”

Both Mr. Delattre and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, where many of the stricken Syrians were evacuated after the Tuesday assault, said more than 100 people had been killed.

Britain, France and the United States put forward a resolution condemning the attack and calling for an investigation, but Russia, one of the Syrian government’s principal backers, said the resolution was “unacceptable,” setting the stage for a Security Council showdown.

Officials in Russia suggested that a Syrian airstrike had hit a bomb-making “terrorist warehouse” containing toxic substances, but Western governments, including the United States, placed the blame squarely on the government of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.

António Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, declared in Brussels on Wednesday that “war crimes are going on in Syria.”

Asked whether Mr. Assad’s government was responsible, Mr. Guterres called for “a very clear investigation to remove all doubts.” He added that the Security Council would gather on Wednesday for “a very important meeting” in the aftermath of the assault.

Condemnation also came from Pope Francis, who called the attack “an unacceptable massacre”; the NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, who deplored “the use of these barbaric weapons”; and Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, who said that Syria’s government bore primary responsibility.

In Brussels, donors convened by the European Union met for a conference to raise money for humanitarian relief. Last year’s meeting saw more than $12 billion in pledges, but given the scale of the suffering today — five million refugees, more than a quarter of Syria’s prewar population — whatever additional aid is pledged seems unlikely to suffice.

The conference is aimed at reassuring countries hosting millions of displaced Syrians — most notably Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey — that they will continue to receive financial support to manage the intense pressures the influx has caused.

The arrival of more than one million migrants, many of them Syrian, has bolstered the fortunes of right-wing populist groups in Germany, and the country’s foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, went out of his way to acknowledge the role Syria’s neighbors have played.

Lebanon and Jordan “have far fewer inhabitants than Germany, 10 percent, even less, and they’ve taken in an unbelievable number of refugees, and they’re relatively poor countries measured against European standards,” Mr. Gabriel said at a news conference, thanking them.

The war in Syria has taken nearly 400,000 lives, monitoring groups have said.

In the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib Province, where the attack took place, rescue workers continued to look for and help survivors, some hiding in shelters.

The first known use of chemicals as weapons in Syria’s civil war came in 2012, and the attack on Tuesday was the most devastating since an August 2013 assault around the town of Ghouta that left hundreds dead and challenged President Barack Obama’s declaration that the use of chemical weapons would amount to a “red line.”

Mr. Obama considered a more direct American intervention in the conflict, but he ultimately decided against one.

“Doctors in Idlib are reporting that dozens of patients suffering from breathing difficulties and suffocation have been admitted to hospitals in the governorate for urgent medical attention, many of them women and children,” the World Health Organization said on Wednesday.

“Reports first emerged of the use of chemical weapons agents in Syria in 2012 and have since occurred with disturbing frequency,” the organization added, “including repeated allegations of chlorine use in and around Aleppo last year, especially from September to December 2016.”

Dr. Peter Salama, executive director of the organization’s Health Emergencies Program, said in a statement, “These types of weapons are banned by international law because they represent an intolerable barbarism.”

Hospitals in the Khan Sheikhoun area are stretched to the breaking point and Al Rahma Hospital — the first to treat victims of the attack — was itself temporarily rendered inoperable by bombing on Tuesday.

Another facility in the area, Ma’ara Hospital, “has been out of service since last Sunday because of extensive damage to infrastructure,” the World Health Organization reported. “Emergency rooms and intensive care units in Idlib are overwhelmed and reporting shortages in medicines required to treat injured patients. Many patients have been referred to hospitals in southern Turkey.”

The organization also said that some of the victims showed symptoms “consistent with exposure to organophosphorus chemicals, a category of chemicals that includes nerve agents.”

Western governments, including the Trump administration, have blamed Mr. Assad for the attack, but the Syrian leadership and Russia, one of its principal backers, have denied responsibility.

In 2013, Mr. Trump urged Mr. Obama on Twitter, “Do NOT attack Syria, fix U.S.A.” But on Tuesday, even as the American president called the Syrian attack a “heinous” massacre that “cannot be ignored by the civilized world,” he blamed his predecessor, saying in a statement, “President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing.”

Even as the wrangling in Washington continued, the center of diplomatic efforts seemed to be at the United Nations, where Western officials feared that Russia would use the veto power it has as a permanent member of the Security Council to block condemnation of the latest attack.

The French foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, who met with his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, on Tuesday to express condolences for the St. Petersburg subway bombing this week, used the occasion to condemn the attack in Syria.

“He noted that this barbaric act should not go unpunished and recalled that the international community as a whole should take responsibility and work to establish facts and responsibilities,” the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement, referring to Mr. Ayrault.

Arriving at the Brussels conference — co-sponsored by the United Nations, Britain, Germany, Kuwait, Norway and Qatar — Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, said it was impossible to imagine Mr. Assad’s “barbaric regime” continuing after the conflict ends.

Mr. Johnson also suggested that Mr. Assad and his government should be held accountable for war crimes, regardless of whether Russia was involved in the latest chemical attack.

Speaking at the same news conference at which Mr. Gabriel appeared, Mr. Johnson said that money should not be used in any way that could help the government in Damascus, but he acknowledged that needed to be balanced against humanitarian needs.

“There can be no budget, there can be no European checkbook, no financing of Syria without a transition away from the Assad regime,” Mr. Johnson said.

Follow Sewell Chan @sewellchan and James Kanter @jameskanter on Twitter.

Somini Sengupta reported from the United Nations and James Kanter from Brussels. Sewell Chan contributed reporting from London and Rick Gladstone from New York.



Ethiomedia.com - An African-American news and views website.
Copyright 2016 Ethiomedia.com.
Email: editor@ethiomedia.com