Russia’s explanation for the devastating chemical attack in Syria Tuesday isn’t getting any traction in the international community. Syria’s closest ally on Wednesday rejected a U.N. Security Council resolution that blamed Bashar Assad’s forces, and said that the atrocity in Idlib was the result of a regime airstrike on a rebel chemical munitions depot. But evidence points to the regime launching the chemical attack, and Russia has a track record of dubious denials over atrocities in the six-year conflict.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson rejected the Russian explanation, saying, “All the evidence I have seen suggests this was the Assad regime… using illegal weapons on their own people.” And a U.S. official told Reuters that Russia’s claim does not “comport with reality.”
Meanwhile, a British chemical weapons expert said such a strike would simply destroy sarin, the nerve agent suspected to have been used in the chemical attack, which killed 72 people in the town of Khan Sheikhoun Tuesday. “If you blow up sarin, you destroy it,” Hamish de Bretton-Gordon told the BBC, calling the Russian claim “completely unsustainable and completely untrue.”
Amnesty International said it had authenticated more than 25 videos filmed in the aftermath of the attack, which medical experts observe symptoms consistent with nerve gas poisoning. And Hasan Haj Ali, commander of the Free Idlib Army rebel group, told Reuters that people on the ground had seen the aircraft “bombing with gas” and that none of the rebel groups were capable of producing such a substance.
The U.S., France, and Britain have proposed a draft resolution to be heard at an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council Wednesday, which would demand Syria provide an international team of investigators with flight logs for Tuesday and access to air bases where the attacks could have been launched. Russia, which has veto power on the Security Council, called the proposal unacceptable. Along with China, it has previously used its veto power to block sanctions against Syria for chemical attacks and other perceived war crimes.
The attack, whose victims show symptoms consistent with exposure to sarin or a similar nerve agent, is the deadliest chemical attack in Syria in years. Images from the scene of lifeless children and victims foaming at the mouth drew comparisons to one of the most infamous episodes of the Syrian war, a gas attack on rebel-held Ghouta in 2013 that left hundreds dead and brought the U.S. to the brink of war in the besieged country.
Though Assad eventually agreed to hand over his chemical arsenal, groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have continued to document the Syrian dictator’s use of chemical weapons on his own people, including coordinated chemical attacks in the final stages of the battle for Aleppo in November and December.
Russia has a track record of denying responsibility on the part of itself or its Syrian allies for gross atrocities documented in the conflict — sometimes even denying they took place at all.
In October, when a school complex in rebel-held Hass was struck, killing at least 35 people, including 22 children, Russia denied responsibility and questioned whether the attack had occurred at all, accusing Western media of circulating “doctored-up” images.
But an independent investigation by the Russia-based Conflict Intelligence Team found that the bombing was likely carried out by the Syrian government or Russia. It found the official Russian response was “at best superficial and at worst constitutes a deliberate attempt to present misinformation to the Russian public and the world.”
U.K.-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Wednesday that the death toll in Khan Sheikhoun had reached 72, including 20 children.
The attack, which comes just days after senior U.S. officials said their priority in the conflict was no longer to remove Assad from power, raises tough questions about the future role of Assad as third parties try to negotiate a resolution to the conflict. With the support of Russia and Iran, Assad has gained the upper hand militarily and opposition forces appear unable to dislodge him.
In recent months, Western governments have been discreetly abandoning their longstanding demand for Assad to be excluded from any role in a future Syria, but the latest attack may have emboldened their resolve for the brutal strongman to go. British Prime Minister Theresa May said after the attack, “There can be no future for Assad in a stable Syria,” and she called on third parties involved “to ensure that we have a transition away from Assad.”