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Russia vetoes U.S. effort to extend Syria chemical weapons investigation

UNITED NATIONS -- Russia vetoed a U.N. Security Council vote on a U.S.-sponsored resolution to extend the mandate of chemical weapons inspectors in Syria.

The veto will prevent inspectors from doing their job and investigating chemical weapons attacks in Syria unless a new agreement is struck to extend them before mid-November.

The resolution did garner 11 votes, so it would have passed if not for the Russian veto. France, which holds the presidency, read the vote. Ambassador Francois Delattre said that the vote failed because of the veto.    

U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who is traveling in Africa, condemned the Russian veto. "Russia has once again demonstrated it will do whatever it takes to ensure the barbaric Assad regime never faces consequences for its continued use of chemicals as weapons," she said in a statement.

"It stinks," Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said before the vote, but after Russia failed in its proposal to postpone the vote until after the report is issued. "Why put the cart before the horse? Russia is always guilty in everything." 

The vote took place days before a report is due on who is responsible for an attack that killed nearly 100 civilians, including children, in Syria's Idlib province six months ago. 

A joint investigation between the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the U.N. is expected to say who was to blame for the attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

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Nebenzia said that the vote today "in no way" will have an impact on the work of the inspectors, and that Russia is ready to extend the mandate after the report is issued.

Earlier this month, Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov, head of Russia's delegation to the General Assembly's disarmament committee, told reporters at the U.N. that Russia wanted to wait for the inspectors' report.

Russia, which is an ally of the Assad regime in Syria, has been critical of the work of  the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) program, which was created with Russian approval and was passed unanimously by the Security Council in 2015. It was later renewed in 2016.

When the OPCW found traces of "sarin or sarin-related chemicals" in an earlier attack in Syria, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said it was "clear that the Syrian regime not only lied about the extent of their chemical weapons program, but that they will continue to refuse to cooperate with watchdog organizations like the OPCW."

OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü said "the perpetrators of this horrific attack must be held accountable for their crimes."

Haley urged other members of the U.N. Security Council to join the U.S. in voting to renew the mandate of the JIM for another year when it expires in November.  

"The Russians have made it very clear that should the report blame the Syrians suddenly they won't have faith in the JIM. If the report doesn't blame the Syrians, then they say that they will. We can't work like that," Haley said. "We can't go and pick and choose who we want to be at fault, who we don't."

In June of this year, a report released by the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) confirmed that people were exposed to a chemical weapon called sarin in April 2017 in the Khan Sheikhoun-area. 

The report was sent to the U.N. Security Council and the OPCW.

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Last year, the JIM found that the Syrian government was behind at least three attacks involving chlorine gas and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was responsible for at least one involving mustard gas.

The Khan Sheikhoun provoked worldwide horror after images of infants and children were shown dying from exposure to the chemical weapons.

In retaliation for the Khan Sheikhoun attack six months ago, the Trump administration launched 59 cruise missiles at the Shayrat military airfield in Homs province, Syria, in April.. It was the first direct American assault against the Assad regime since that country's civil war began.

The history of the agreement is important to remember. The Assad government was responsible for a sarin nerve agent attack as far back as 2013 in a Damascus suburb of Ghouta, where 1,000 people died and the then-Obama administration threatened a military response, only to reverse course. 

In a diplomatic agreement, Syria agreed to destroy its declared chemical weapons, but kept some of its undeclared stockpiles.

Russia has complained frequently about the work of the JIM. And on Monday, in anticipation of the vote, the Foreign Ministry said the extension of the JIM mandate "should depend on the quality of its work" for which it needs to read the final report.

The Security Council has until mid-November to renew the mandate of the inspectors.

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