STATE DEPARTMENT —
Syria and Russia on Wednesday accused the United States of lying about chemical weapons attacks in the Syrian conflict as a way of derailing efforts to bring an end to the fighting.
Syria's state-run SANA news agency carried comments from a Foreign Ministry source condemning what it called "lies and allegations" by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the Interfax news agency that whenever peace efforts advance, the United States promotes "rigged, unverified reports" of chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
Those comments came a day after the United States joined its NATO allies in launching a pressure campaign against the use of chemical weapons in Syria, while singling out Russia for protecting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government.
"The recent attacks in East Ghouta raise serious concerns that Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime might be continuing its use of chemical weapons against its own people," Tillerson said at a Paris conference hosted by Le Drian.
Tillerson said at least 20 people were killed Monday in an apparent chlorine gas attack in rebel-held East Ghouta, near Damascus.
"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," he said.
Tillerson, along with foreign ministers from France, Germany and Turkey, were among those who launched the International Partnership Against Impunity for Use of Chemical Weapons on Tuesday. More than two dozen like-minded nations endorsed a political commitment to share information on combating the use of chemical weapons worldwide.
The U.S. secretary of state noted Russia's failure to resolve the chemical weapons issue in Syria calls into question its commitment to the resolution of the overall crisis.
"At a very minimum, Russia must stop vetoing and at least abstain from future security council votes on this issue," Tillerson said.
In November, Russia vetoed the renewal of an independent and technical group created by the U.N. Security Council, the so-called Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), to look into the perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
"When Russia killed the JIM, they sent a dangerous message to the world — one that not only said chemical weapons use is acceptable but also that those who use chemical weapons don’t need to be identified or held accountable," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said in a statement Tuesday.
Concern about Turkey's Afrin offensive
Turkey's offensive in the northern Syrian enclave of Afrin was also a focus of Tuesday's talks in Paris, with Tillerson meeting with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu. A day earlier, during remarks in London, the top U.S. diplomat said the United States is "concerned" about the offensive against U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria.
Turkish forces intensified military operations on Monday to push the Kurdish militia out of the Afrin area.
The Turkish operation is aimed at ousting from Afrin the Syrian Kurdish group that has controlled territory in northern Syria and proven effective in the U.S.-coalition-led fight against Islamic State militants.
Turkey considers the YPG to be a terrorist organization associated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK, which has fought for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey.
French Foreign Minister Le Drian on Tuesday joined Tillerson in expressing his concern about Turkey’s military operation in Afrin.
"I had the opportunity to tell my Turkish colleague that this offensive worries us," Le Drian said.
"While we understand the concerns Turkey has about border security, we cannot but call on Turkey to show the greatest level restraint on this issue," the French foreign minister added.
Turkey's shelling into Afrin came after the U.S.-led coalition said it would form a 30,000-strong Kurdish-led border security force in northern Syria.
Washington later said the effort had been mischaracterized and that the United States was not creating a border force, but that the coalition would provide security to liberated areas, blocking escape routes for Islamic State militants.