US requests UNSC vote on alleged chemical attack in Syria – reports

The US has requested a vote at the UN Security Council on a draft resolution for a new inquiry into the alleged chemical incident in Douma, Syria. It comes as Russia urges the UN to dispatch investigators to the site.

The UN Security Council is expected to vote at 3pm New York time (19:00 GMT) on Tuesday, according to media reports, citing diplomatic sources. “The vote has been requested,” an unnamed diplomat told RIA Novosti.

 
United States envoy to the United Nations Nikki Haley addresses the Security Council, April 9, 2018. © Brendan McDermid

It comes as Moscow and Damascus have urged the UN’s chemical weapons watchdog to send experts to the site of the alleged incident as soon as possible.

“Due to the rapid escalation of the situation, Russia calls on the technical secretariat to urgently send the mission’s experts to establish the facts of the alleged chemical weapons usage in Syria in order to clarify all the details of the incident,” Russia’s mission to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said on Tuesday. It added that any delays would only play into the hands of those who desire to use the reported incident as a pretext to launch an attack on Syria.

While the US will supposedly be seeking an inquiry into the alleged incident, Washington has already pinned the blame for it on Damascus and its allies. Following the first reports that came from the controversial White Helmets and other anti-government groups, US President Donald Trump called his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad an “animal,” adding that there would be a “big price to pay” for the purported use of chemical weapons.

READ MORE: 'Post-fact mindset in US: First punishment & then search for evidence to rationalize war-mongering'

On Monday, the US envoy to the UN, Nikki Haley, appeared to speak of the alleged chemical attack as a proven fact, blaming Russia and the “monster” Assad for it.

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Russia & Syria call for on-the-ground probe in Douma, pledge to provide security to OPCW experts

Moscow has proposed to create an independent investigative mechanism into the alleged chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma, promising, along with the Syrian army, to guarantee prompt access for experts to the site.

Russia's envoy to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, has reiterated that Russia will support a thorough investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons in the rebel-held town of Douma over the weekend.

"Let us recall that our draft resolution to set up such a mechanism is in blue. And we stand ready to adopt it today if necessary," Nebenzia said, referring to the Russia-sponsored UNSC resolution to establish an independent investigative mechanism under the auspices of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

 

A photo showing a child being washed after what the White Helmets and other anti-government groups in Syria claim was a chemical weapons attack in Douma, Eastern Ghouta, on April 7. The Russian military says the photos were staged. © Reuters

Moscow is ready to serve as a guarantor of security for those OPCW experts who would inspect the site of the incident, Nebenzia added, stressing the need for the probe to be carried out without delay. The experts may "immediately, tomorrow, fly to Damascus," the diplomat said.

"There, the Syrian authorities and Russian troops will provide conditions to travel to the area of the alleged incident for them to familiarize themselves with the situation," Nebenzia said, reminding the UNSC member-states' representatives that "that is what President Trump and other western leaders called upon us to undertake."

The Syrian Permanent Representative to the United Nations Bashar Jaafari said his country is also ready to welcome the OPCW team as soon as possible and to provide them with everything necessary for a comprehensive investigation.

"My country, Syria, stresses its unlimited cooperation with the OPCW to fulfill the commitments stated in the convention of the prohibition of the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons," he said.

Highlighting the importance of a swift investigation, Nebenzia noted that it should be conducted on the ground, and not through third parties. Moscow has repeatedly criticized the OPCW investigation into last April's Khan Sheikhoun incident as "unprofessional." One of the major flaws of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), as pointed out by Moscow, was that the whole investigation was conducted remotely. As a result, the findings of the OPCW report, that blamed the attack on the Syrian government, were mostly based on speculation by analysts, accounts by unidentified witnesses and material evidence submitted by third parties with no chain of custody being implemented.

In November, the mechanism's mandate expired and Moscow vetoed a resolution to extend its authority, arguing that it was effectively "dead" and couldn't be revived, stressing a need for a new, "professional, objective and unbiased" mechanism to replace its discredited predecessor. Moscow at the time proposed a resolution to create one but it was not passed by the UNSC.

Speaking to the media on Monday, Nebenzia did not specify if Russia would put the resolution to a vote on Tuesday. Meanwhile, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said she is looking forward to the Security Council voting on the resolution proposed by the US.

 

FILE PHOTO: A Syrian man collects and bags the body of a dead bird, reportedly killed by a suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun, in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province © Omar haj kadour

The US draft, leaked to the media, implies that Syria might be found in violation of UNSC Resolution 2118 as a result of the investigation by a proposed "Independent Mechanism of Investigation."  The resolution, adopted in 2013, provided for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles. Damascus has repeatedly stressed its compliance, denying allegations of the use of toxic agents in the offensives on rebel-held regions.

"The Syrian Arab Republic stresses once again it does not possess any chemical weapons of any type, including chlorine," Jaafari said at Monday’s UNSC meeting.

The US-sponsored draft "condemns in the strongest terms the continued use of chemical weapons" and also stipulates that measures might be taken against Syria under the UN Charter Chapter 7, which paves the way for the use of force.

Nebenzia denounced the draft, saying that it contains "some unacceptable elements." "There is nothing there that would meet the high standards of the United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention," he said.

The UNSC President, Gustavo Meza-Cuadra, Permanent Representative of Peru to the United Nations, said that he expects the countries' delegations to continue to work on the draft for the rest of Monday and on Tuesday, describing the situation as "very difficult."

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US hits Russia with new sanctions, interior minister among 38 officials, tycoons & companies listed

The US Treasury has issued new Russia-related sanctions, adding to the already existing list almost 40 high-profile businessmen and politicians, as well as companies.

In total, 24 Russians and 14 entities were put on the list, in a move that represents the latest tough measures from Washington against Moscow. US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin accused Russia of “a range of malign activity around the globe,” referring to what he called the occupation of Crimea and the instigation violence in eastern Ukraine, as well as “supplying the Assad regime with material and weaponry.” 

Russia’s other alleged wrongdoings include “attempting to subvert Western democracies, and malicious cyber activities.”

 
© Michael Weber

The list of the “specially designated nationals” now includes Chairperson of the Council of the Federation Committee on Foreign Affairs Konstantin Kosachev. Kosachev fired back, calling the US move baseless and hostile.

“Another unsustained, unfriendly and meaningless step. The attempt to justify the absence of real strategy and to prove allegedly existing legality of the [US] actions towards Russia,” Kosachev told Interfax.

Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev, head of the National Guard Service (Rosgvardiya) Viktor Zolotov, and ex-FSB head Nikolay Patrushev have also made it to the list.

The US Treasury also targeted big guns such as billionaire and aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska and Alexey Miller. Deripaska is the founder and owner of one of the largest Russian industrial groups, Basic Element. Until 2018, he served as the president of En+ Group. Deripaska’s main companies, such as Basic Element, En+ Group, Rusal, and Russian Machines are included on the list.

Russian defense corporation Rosoboronexport is also among the targeted companies.

While the US claims the new round of restrictions concerns alleged Russian meddling, the real reason behind the move is more selfish, a top Russian official believes.

“Lobbying of the US military-industrial complex” is what actually drives these decisions, the deputy head of the Russian lower house of parliament’s defense committee, Yury Shvitkin, said.

The newly-imposed restrictions will actually have no impact on Russia’s official activities in the international arena, ex-FSB head Nikolay Patrushev believes.

The allegations voiced by the US Treasury have been repeatedly refuted by Moscow. Crimea reunited with Russia following a referendum in 2014, in which the overwhelming majority voted for reunification. However, Kiev and its allies, including Washington, consider it to be “occupied.” Moscow insists the referendum was conducted in accordance with international law.

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Will Syria peace trio succeed given all three have different agendas?

Although Russia, Iran and Turkey have different objectives in Syria, the summit in Ankara showed that they all seek the territorial integrity of the country, experts told RT, warning however that the region is in serious turmoil.

Three of the power brokers of peace in Syria met in Ankara on April 4 in an effort to reduce the violence in the war-torn country: Russia's Vladimir Putin and Iran's Hassan Rouhani met for a trilateral summit hosted by their Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

RT discussed the results of the summit with Middle East experts.

Asked about the three-way cooperation and how it is going to work, given that Russia, Iran and Turkey have their own plans and are supporting different sides in the conflict, Abdel Bari Atwan, an author and Middle East analyst, said “there is a common ground which makes three leaders work together, especially on Syria.” 

 
© Umit Bektas

“I have looked at the final communiqué of their meeting during the summit in Ankara. It was very clear that they have agreed on a lot of things,” he said.

In particular, the joint statement says that the three leaders “rejected all attempts to create new realities on the ground under the pretext of combating terrorism and expressed their determination to stand against separatist agendas aimed at undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria as well as the national security of neighboring countries.”

According to Atwan, this means that there is no chance for a Kurdish entity to be established in Syria.

Another important point mentioned in the statement was that “they agreed that there should be stability and security in Syria in order to allow the Syrian refugees to go back to Syria.”

“The third one, which is also extremely important, [is] not to use the terrorist as a pretext to keep foreign forces in northern Syria, which is a clear reference to the American 2,000 troops based there,” he added. 

Emre Caliskan, co-author of ‘The 'New Turkey' and its Discontents,’ told RT that although three countries have different agendas, in terms of the future of Syria, they agreed on one thing: “They all want to respect the territory unification of Syria, they all want not to have American influence in the region.”

Joshua Landis, director at the Center of Middle East Studies, University of Oklahoma, argues “it is going to be very difficult” for these trilateral efforts to rebuild Syria, considering US troops are still stationed there.

 
FILE PHOTO: Refugees is a camp near Gaziantep, Turkey, April 23, 2016. © Umit Bektas

“What we are seeing today is that Syria is increasingly being divided into three zones: a Russian and Assad zone, an American and Kurdish zone and a Turkish zone where the rebel militias hold sway,” he noted. Landis said that “this is a period of great turmoil.”

“As we’ve seen, President Trump wants to bring the troops out of Syria, he doesn’t believe that America has long-term interests in Syria. Of course, America’s allies have a lot of interests: Saudi Arabia, Israel, they do not want to see the US leave Syria. They want the US to turn up the pressure on Iran and to hurt Persia as much as they possibly can,” he explained.

“The US holds about 50 percent of Syria’s oil and much of its best agricultural lands. To give those back in a sense to the Syrian government or to allow Turkey and Syria to take over its northern section of Syria would be a blow to those two countries who don’t want to see Syria back on the stage, particularly, now that Assad and Iran still have influence there, and now that Russia has influence there,” Landis pointed out, adding that “they want to hurt Russia.”

“And we saw McMaster, the national security adviser, who was just fired, say the Russia has not paid a high enough price. There are many policy advisers who want the US to make Russia pay a higher price, to make Iran pay a higher price. This confusion goes right through the policy-making community in the US. And it does make the US look very disorganized indeed.”

According to political analyst Seyyed Mostafa Khoshcheshm, “the US has grown so weak in Syria and in the region that we heard just very recently that Donald Trump said that they want to pull out unless the Saudis pay for their stay in Syria.”

“The US has grown so weak that they cannot have any major say or any say in Syria, so what they are doing is that they are playing negativism, they are trying to sabotage peace and welfare of the Syrian nation. And they are trying to sabotage the restoration of stability in Syria and in the region in order to be given a part in there,” he told RT.

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'Unchallenged US domination becoming a thing of the past' – Former Russian ambassador to US

Americans are not used to treating others with equal respect, and are trying to impose their "exceptional leadership" on Moscow, not fully aware that things have changed, Russia's former envoy to Washington, Sergey Kislyak, said.

The US is presently going through a "difficult period of adaptation to a new alignment of forces and influences in the world," Kislyak told Kommersant newspaper on Tuesday.

"The unchallenged American domination and leadership is becoming a thing of the past. Economically, China has almost overtaken the United States. Europe is beginning at the very least to try to speak its own political language. Meanwhile, Russia got up off its knees, straightened its shoulders and proved that it can stand up for its national interests.

“At the same time, from what we do and say, nothing is 'anti-American.' First and foremost, we are talking only about the need to ensure our national security interests," the now-retired Russian ambassador to the US noted.

Kislyak said that, as things stand now, Americans seem to be at a crossroads because they are "not used to working with others with equal respect, and are trying to further impose their 'exceptional leadership,' not fully aware of the fact that the conditions have changed.”

“Hence their inflated reaction to our independence and to, as they say, Russia defying US interests almost all over the world," he stated.

Kislyak was appointed the Russian ambassador to the US in 2008, and had been in charge of securing Russia-US relations for almost a decade when in 2016 he found himself at the center of the FBI's investigation into Russia's alleged interference in the US presidential election.

In December of last year, Donald Trump's former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, pleaded guilty to charges of making false statements to the FBI about his conversation with then-Russian ambassador to the US, Kislyak.

Flynn was forced to resign after the then-acting Justice Department head (who was subsequently fired for refusing to enforce a travel ban executive order) warned that he could be subjected to blackmail because his dealings with Russians hadn't been disclosed.

At issue was the phone call between Flynn and Kislyak at the end of December 2016, after President Barack Obama ordered several dozen Russian diplomats to leave the US and closed two Russian diplomatic properties.

While media outlets speculated about the content of Flynn’s phone call with Kislyak, the former Russian ambassador said they were openly discussing “the simplest things.”We spoke about the simplest things… But the communication was completely specific, quiet, absolutely transparent. There were no secrets, at least on our part,” Kislyak told Rossiya-24 in August.

For some reason, the US never invited Kislyak to speak in front of the grand jury investigating alleged Russian meddling in the US election. Commenting on the issue, Kislyak said that Washington “jumped at a litigation built around false information.”

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NATO crossed ‘red line’ with military build-up around Russian borders – envoy to NATO

NATO has crossed a line with its “unjustified” military build-up on Russia’s doorstep, Russian envoy to NATO Aleksandr Grushko has warned. He added that global security cannot be ensured without Russia.

 
A US soldier walks to the welcoming ceremony for US-led NATO troops at polygon near Orzysz, Poland on 13 Apr. 2017 © Kacper Pempel / Reuters

Relations with states neighboring Russia never developed “military dimensions” despite strained relations with some of them, including with the Baltic states, Grushko said. But the situation has now changed, thanks to the military bloc, he told a discussion panel at the Valdai Club on Tuesday.

“Now, thanks to NATO, we have a military dimension, it was their choice, they crossed the red line,” Grushko said.

While the West has been trying hard to isolate Russia and fuel anti-Russian hysteria, international security is the only thing that suffers from this approach, according to Grushko. Any NATO and EU attempts to create “isolated safe havens” are doomed to failure, the diplomat said, as the creation of solid security systems cannot succeed without Russia.

The situation on Russia’s doorstep is also reminiscent of “Cold War schemes,” which should already have been buried as they were proven to be inefficient. However, if the alliance turns its back on Russia, it will only harm its own security, the Russian official added.

“If they do not want dialogue, then there won’t be any. It takes two to tango, as you know, it will be a conscious choice of the alliance,” Grushko said.

In the wake of international hysteria over the Skripal case and following the mass expulsions of Russian diplomats from a range of countries, NATO cut the permanent size of the Russian mission from a maximum of 30 to 20. Grushko stressed that the alliance is damaging itself with such moves, as it merely decreased the already reduced level of bilateral cooperation.

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Russian GM Dreev main attraction of upcoming Capablanca tournament

Russian Alexei Dreev will be the major attraction in the Elite Group of the Capablanca Memorial Chess Tournament to take place in Havana from May 8-20 next.

Dreev currently owns 2,653 ELO points and although he no longer appears among the best players of his country, his curriculum includes five Chess Olympics, attendances to world championships and victories in famous contests.

He will undoubtedly bring prestige to the six-player-round-robin event that will also feature famous players such as American Samuel Shankland (2,668) and Russian Alexander Rakhmanov (2,655).

Shankland finished second last year when the winner was Indian Krishnan Sasikiran, only one able of "stealing" a crown from Ukrainian Vassily Ivanchuk in all his attendances to this competition, but he won´t come this time.

Carlos Rivero, Cuba´s national commissioner, told JIT sports publication that the 2018 Capablanca Memorial Chess Tournament will also include an Open Group to be attended by about 150 players, mainly locals, and an U16 Poole.

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