UNITED NATIONS - Russia deployed yet another U.N. Security Council veto Wednesday to protect Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad from international condemnation for last week's deadly chemical weapons attack.
"With its veto, Russia said 'no' to accountability, Russia said 'no' to cooperation with the United Nations' independent investigation, and Russia said 'no' to a resolution that would have helped promote peace in Syria," U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley told the council. "Russia has once again chosen to side with Assad," she said in reference to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.
In a vote of 10 in favor, two against and three abstentions, Moscow blocked the measure put forward by Britain, France and the United States. China, in a rare break with Russia, abstained, while non-permanent members Bolivia voted no, and Ethiopia and Kazakhstan joined China in abstaining.
The draft resolution sought to condemn the gas attack and strengthen an international investigation into what happened. An earlier, similar draft resolution failed to make it to a vote last Thursday.
"If the regime is innocent, as Russia claims, the information requested in this resolution would have vindicated them," Haley said. "By its failure, Russia will continue to be isolated."
Haley also had a warning for the Assad regime in Damascus: "The United States is watching your actions very closely. The days of your arrogance and disregard of humanity are over," she said. "I suggest you look at this vote very carefully, and heed this warning."
The Trump administration believes the Assad regime launched the April 4 gas attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun from the Shayrat airfield. After seeing images of dying children in the chemical attack, President Donald Trump said he decided a military response was necessary. The United States launched a targeted missile attack against the airfield two days after the chemical attack.
Russia's U.N. deputy envoy Vladimir Safronkov rejected the Western draft resolution, saying it "appointed the guilty party prior to an independent and objective investigation."
Finding definitive evidence
At an earlier session of the council Wednesday, also about Syria, Britain's U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said his government shares the U.S. assessment that it is highly likely the Assad regime was responsible for a sarin attack on the town last week.
"Chemical weapons scientists at Porton Down, in the United Kingdom, have analyzed samples obtained from Khan Sheikhoun, and these have tested positive for the nerve agent sarin, or a sarin-like substance," he told council members.
"We need to find out the facts, conduct a comprehensive investigation," Russia's Safronkov told the council. He questioned how foreign experts already could have concluded that Damascus is responsible. "I am amazed this was the conclusion. No one has yet visited the site of the crime. How do you know that?" he asked.
Syria's Ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari said it is all "lies and accusations" against his country, and Syria no longer possesses chemical weapons, as confirmed by the United Nations in June 2014.
Seeking a political solution
Council members also were briefed by U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, who is tasked with trying to bring the opposing Syrian sides together in a political settlement.
He recently completed a fifth round of intra-Syrian talks in Geneva, the first time the two sides have spoken directly instead of through him. De Mistura said that while there were no breakthroughs, there also were no breakdowns, and that the parties held substantive talks for nine full days on all the issues.
"Yes, the gaps are still wide," he said. He warned that the talks were overshadowed by an intensification of fighting on the ground and urged the restoration of a nationwide cease-fire.
"This is a time for clear thinking, strategy, imagination, cooperation," de Mistura said.
He welcomed the talks Wednesday in Moscow between U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. He said he knows the two powers have "serious differences," but they also have "common interests and responsibilities."
"They must find a way to work together, to stabilize the situation, in a deliberate, realistic and concerted way, in support of the political process," de Mistura said.
Ultimately, de Mistura said there is a choice: Either the killing and destruction continue, or there is a shift to serious discussion and real de-escalation and a cease-fire to reach a political settlement. "The stakes in Syria are very high."