Just before President Trump launched missile strikes Thursday evening, a senior Russian diplomat warned of “negative consequences” if the United States resorted to military action in response to a chemical attack in Syria.
“We have to think about negative consequences, and all the responsibility,” Moscow’s deputy United Nations ambassador, Vladimir Safronkov, told a gaggle of reporters after the UN Security Council reached a deadlock on an attempt to address the crisis diplomatically. “If military action occurred, [it] will be on shoulders of those who initiated such doubtful and tragic enterprise.”
“Look at Iraq, look at Libya,” he added.
Earlier, Olof Skoog, Sweden’s ambassador to the United Nations, sounded a similar note. “I remember Hans Blix. Of course I’m concerned” about the possibility of a U.S. attack in Syria, he said. Skoog was referring to the former UN inspector who famously warned about the negative consequences of an American invasion of Iraq.
The two diplomats spoke amid hours of frantic negotiations over a resolution to address the attack at Khan Sheikhoun in Syria’s Idlib province, which left dozens dead. The U.S. and other Western countries argue that the well-documented attack included chemical weapons. And as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said earlier, “There’s no question in our minds” that the Syrian government was responsible for the attack.
If true, Damascus has violated an international convention that it signed in 2014, which bans the use, stockpiling, and weaponizing of all types of chemical arms.
Early on Thursday, Russia proposed a resolution to address the chemical attack in Idlib. Moscow insisted that a commission to investigate must be “regionally balanced,” as Safronkov put it. He accused a current UN inspection team in Syria of bias, saying it too often relies on unverified reports.
Moscow has vetoed past Security Council proposals to condemn Syria for violating the Chemical Weapons Convention, even though UN inspectors verified that the Syrian army used chlorine as a weapon on its enemies.
The Russian proposal Thursday was a counteroffer to an American-British-French text that called on the Syrian government to fully cooperate with the UN inspectors. That text included a demand to hand over to the inspectors air logs, details of helicopter squadrons, including higher brass, and access to relevant Syrian air bases. Russia made clear it would veto the resolution. The U.S. and its allies told Russia that its resolution would not pass.
At that point the 10 non-permanent members of the council proposed yet a third text, attempting to bridge the differences. Instead of detailing the steps the Syrian government must take to cooperate with the inspectors, the new text simply called for providing the inspectors “with immediate and unfettered access.” China said it might support the new proposal, but the other veto-wielding members dismissed it.
Reaching an impasse late in the evening, the 15 members of the council left the building on First Avenue, failing even to agree on further negotiations the next day.
When they arrived home, after a long day of hard negotiations on a resolution that would collectively address what all of them agreed was a horrific event, they saw on their TV sets that the United States had already found a different way to address it.
And then, according to a UN diplomat, Bolivia, a current member of the Security Council, requested an emergency session to address, and perhaps condemn, the U.S. missile attack in Syria. And in short order, Moscow joined the request. The American move is an “act of aggression of the U.S. against a UN nation,” said Viktor Ozerov, the head of the defense committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament.
As the president of the council in April, the U.S. will probably schedule the session for Friday. But as one of the top five members, it will likely veto any attempt to condemn its action.