(CNSNews.com) – Amid a barrage of international criticism directed at its Syrian ally, Russia argued Wednesday that those killed by a toxic agent in Syria’s Idlib province were the victims not of chemical-laced bombs dropped by the regime’s planes, but of chemicals released when the air force bombed a rebel storage facility.
The suggestion was challenged during an “emergency meeting” of the U.N. Security Council, where Western nations laid the responsibility for the attack at the door of the Assad regime.
The U.N. high representative for disarmament affairs, Kim Won-Soo, told the council that the attack in Khan Sheikhun on Tuesday had reportedly taken the form of an airstrike on a residential area, although he said the means of delivery could not be confirmed, and noted that the Syrian government has denied responsibility.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says at least 70 people were killed and hundreds more were affected.
“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,” it said in a statement that reiterated that “the use of chemical weapons is a war crime.”
Russian defense ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said the Syrian air force had targeted “a major ammunition storage facility of terrorists” on the outskirts of Khan Sheikhun.
“The territory of this storage facility housed workshops to produce projectiles stuffed with toxic agents,” he said.
Konashenkov said chemical weapons from the facility had been provided to militants in Iraq where, he said, “their use by terrorists was confirmed on numerous occasions by international organizations and official authorities of the country.”
Those claims were repeated almost verbatim by Russian U.N. delegate Vladimir Safronkov during the U.N. Security Council session.
But French Ambassador Francois Delattre challenged the assertion that the attack was the result of an airstrike on a rebel warehouse.
He noted that there had been no fire, which would have occurred in the event of a weapons warehouse having been bombed.
Delattre said further that the Syrian air force operates in that area and had in fact carried out additional strikes there later Tuesday. And he pointed out that a joint investigative mechanism set up earlier by the council found the Syrian military responsible for chemical weapons use on at least three previous occasions.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley dismissed Russia’s attempts to point to other culprits.
“Time and time again, Russia uses the same false narrative to deflect attention from their allies in Damascus,” she said. “Time and time again, without any factual basis, Russia attempts to place blame on others.”
Haley called the attack “a new low, even for the barbaric Assad regime.”
“The gas that fell out of the sky yesterday was more deadly, leaving men, women, the elderly, and children, gasping for their very last breath,” she told the council.
“And as first responders, doctors, and nurses rushed to help the victims, a second round of bombs rained down,” Haley said. “They died in the same slow, horrendous manner as the civilians they were trying to save.”
British representative Matthew Rycroft linked the attack to a decision by Russia and China to veto a Security Council resolution last February that would have sent a “clear signal” of consequences for any party using chemical weapons in Syria.
The message sent by failure to adopt that resolution, he said, was one of encouragement for the Assad regime, and “yesterday we saw the effects of those vetoes.”
(It was the seventh veto cast by Russia to protect Assad since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, and the sixth by China.)
The Assad regime was meant to have surrendered all of its chemical weapons, under a deal brokered by Russia following an earlier and even deadlier chemical attack blamed on the regime, in Ghouta in August 2013.
In what became known as the “red line” episode, President Obama signaled an intention to carry out punitive airstrikes against the regime for crossing his chemical weapons “red line” established a year earlier, but then backed off after the Russians arranged the deal.
In his remarks to the Security Council, Russia’s Safronkov said that U.S. “red line” prompted terrorists to themselves use chemical weapons in a bid to discredit the regime and “create a pretext for the use of military force against a sovereign state.”
He said the “obsession with regime change” was hindering the efforts of the Security Council to resolve the conflict.
‘Acute respiratory distress’
According to the WHO, early assessments of the Khan Sheikhun attack point to the possible use of organophosphorus compounds. Sarin, the agent used in the 2013 Ghouta attack, is one such compound.
“The likelihood of exposure to a chemical attack is amplified by an apparent lack of external injuries reported in cases showing a rapid onset of similar symptoms, including acute respiratory distress as the main cause of death,” WHO said. “Some cases appear to show additional signs consistent with exposure to organophosphorus chemicals, a category of chemicals that includes nerve agents.”
Prior investigations have found evidence that the Assad regime used chlorine as a weapon in 2014 and 2015, and that the ISIS terrorist group used sulphur mustard gas in 2015.
In July 2015, ISIS was accused of using a chemical agent, most likely chlorine, against Kurdish forces in Iraq.
Just last month, the International Committee of the Red Cross reported the use of a “blistering chemical agent” in fighting around Mosul, Iraq last month. It did not assign blame.
Mustard gas is the most common blistering agent, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Sarin, a colorless and odorless lethal nerve agent, has been linked both to the 2013 Ghouta attack and to an incident several months earlier in Aleppo, in which the regime and rebel groups blamed each other.
There have been no reports of sarin use in Iraq since ISIS emerged there in 2014, however.
One incident of sarin contamination occurred in Iraq back in 2004, when two U.S. explosive experts were affected, according to a later New York Times investigation.