Wednesday 12 December 2018

Kremlin shares blame for chemical attacks by Syrian government, says Tillerson

Kurdish fighters hold their weapons during a rally in Hasaka, north-eastern Syria, yesterday. Photo: Rodi Said/Reuters
Kurdish fighters hold their weapons during a rally in Hasaka, north-eastern Syria, yesterday. Photo: Rodi Said/Reuters

Sarah Elizabeth Williams in Amman

Russia bears responsibility for recent reported chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson said yesterday.

The alleged chlorine gas attacks in January affected 20 civilians, many of them children, in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta, where government-allied forces have starved and bombarded around 400,000 civilians in a siege lasting more than three years.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Photo: Getty Images
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Photo: Getty Images

“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,” Mr Tillerson told reporters in Paris. “There is simply no denying that Russia, by shielding its Syrian ally, has breached its commitments to the US as a framework guarantor.”

The top US diplomat’s harsh rebuke will further strain relations between the two superpowers over Syria. Moscow backs the Syrian government headed by President Bashar al-Assad and the US seeks his removal.

Mr Tillerson demanded Russia stop vetoing related votes in the UN Security Council, where it has torpedoed successive draft resolutions designed to increase humanitarian access and limit fighting.

Russia and China have blocked Western-backed efforts to impose sanctions on Damascus over the use of chemical weapons.

Mr Tillerson made the comments at a Paris meeting for diplomats from 29 countries pushing for sanctions. Participants will share information to compile a list of individuals implicated in the use of chemical weapons in Syria and beyond, in order to facilitate asset freezes, entry bans, and criminal proceedings. There have been at least 130 chemical attacks in Syria since 2012, according to French estimates. In 2013, the regime admitted it had chemical weapon stockpiles, but said it was keen to co-operate with the UN and become a signatory of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Elsewhere in Syria, the risk of another front opening in the nearly seven-year conflict rose as columns of Turkish tanks and armoured personnel carriers were positioned along the Turkish-Syrian border. Yesterday marked the fourth day of Operation Olive Branch, Turkey’s military campaign to crush the US-backed Kurdish militants just over its border.

The US cautioned its Nato ally Turkey, and the Kurdish fighters it uses as proxies in Syria, that the escalating conflict along the Turkey-Syria border is distracting from efforts to defeat Isil. Turkey sees the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and fears the YPG will be emboldened by the recent announcement that the US-led coalition would rely heavily on Kurdish Syrian militias to set up a 30,000-strong border force.

A spokesman for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, accused Washington of “taking steps to legitimise this organisation and make it lasting in the region”.

Sami Anan, a former Egyptian army general who planned to run against Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the country’s president, in this year’s elections has been arrested, the latest in what appears to be a co-ordinated state campaign to drive would-be challengers from the race. (© Daily Telegraph London)

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