Canada's Foreign Minister Chrystia
Freeland, Switzerland's Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter, British
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Qatar's Foreign Minister Mohammed bin
Abdulrahman al-Thani, Kuwait Foreign Minister Sabah Al Khalid Al Sabah,
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, United Nations Secretary General
Antonio Guterres and European Union foreign policy chief Federica
Mogherini pose for pictures as they take part in an international
conference on the future of Syria and the region, in Brussels, Belgium,
April 5, 2017.
By Gabriela Baczynska and Robin Emmott| BRUSSELS Britain and France on Wednesday renewed their call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to leave office, after a suspected chemical attack by Damascus killed scores of people in a rebel-held area, eclipsing an international conference to promote peace. Foreign ministers Boris Johnson of Britain and Jean-Marc Ayrault of France spoke during the international conference on Syria, which the European Union convened in Brussels in a bid to shore up stalled peace talks between Assad and his rivals. "I simply don't see how Bashar al-Assad can remain in charge after what he has already done. Of the 400,000 people who are estimated to have been killed in Syria, he is responsible for the vast majority of the butcher's bill," Johnson said. "You have to go a long way back in history to find a tyrant who has stayed in office in such circumstances."
Ayrault said the attack was a test for the new U.S. president, Donald Trump, and his stance on Assad. The future of Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, has always been the main point of contention blocking progress in talks. The war has raged for more than six years, displacing millions and throwing civilians into dire humanitarian conditions. "The need for humanitarian aid and the protection of Syrian civilians has never been greater. The humanitarian appeal for a single crisis has never been higher," United Nations' Secretary General Antonio Guterres said. The U.N. has called for $8 billion this year to deal with one of the world's most acute humanitarian crises, and the Brussels gathering responded with some fresh pledges of aid.
Hours before the U.N. Security Council meets
over a resolution proposed by Washington, London and Paris on the
attack, Guterres said: "We have been asking for accountability on the
crimes that have been committed and I am confident the Security Council
will live up to its responsibilities."
The three countries blamed Assad for the attack, possibly the third one with the use of chemical arms in a month.
TRUMP LINE ON ASSAD?
But Russia said the toxic gas
had leaked from a rebel chemical weapons depot struck by Syrian bombs,
setting the stage for a diplomatic clash at the Security Council.
head Jens Stoltenberg and EU chairman Donald Tusk on Wednesday joined
the chorus condemning the attack, with the latter saying Damascus was
mainly to blame but that "all who support it share moral and political
In blaming Assad,
Trump did not say how he would respond. The attack came a week after
Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.N. envoy Nikki Haley said
their focus was on defeating Islamic State in Syria rather than pushing
"Under Obama, we
agreed that Assad had to go, but now it is unclear where the Trump
position lies," said a senior EU diplomat. "Have Washington and Moscow
now agreed on backing Assad? For the EU, Assad cannot be part of Syria's
That is a view shared by
the Gulf Arab states, as presented in Brussels by Mohammed bin
Abdulrahman al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar: "There is no solution
in Syria without getting rid of Assad," he said.
The conference appealed for more humanitarian aid access in Syria and an end to using sieges and starvation as war tactics.
EU's top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, pledged 560 million euros ($600
mln) in 2018 for humanitarian projects in Syria and supporting refugees
in the neighboring Lebanon and Jordan.
separately promised 1.2 billion euros ($1.3 bln) extra for 2017, while
London offered an additional one billion pounds ($1.3 bln). EU states
and Brussels have so far mobilized about 9.5 billion euros in Syria
emergency humanitarian aid.
Brussels says the bloc will not pay for reconstruction if Damascus and
its allies wipe out Syria's opposition and moderate rebels, recapturing
full control of the country but denying its various ethnic and religious
groups a political say.
conference, however, offered no new ideas on how to end the war,
highlighting the international community's inability to unlock peace.
is a sense of despair but the international community just cannot agree
on how to fix Syria," another senior EU diplomat said.
(Additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek and Philip Blenkinsop in
Brussels, John Irish in Paris, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by
Russia denies Syria's Assad to blame for chemical attack, on course for collision with Trump
Author:Maria Tsvetkova, Tom Perry, Reuters
MOSCOW/BEIRUT – Russia denied on Wednesday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was to blame for a suspected chemical attack
and said it would continue to back him, setting the Kremlin on course
for its biggest diplomatic collision yet with Donald Trump's White
Western countries, including the United States, blamed Assad's armed
forces for the worst chemical attack in Syria for more than four years,
which choked scores of people to death in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in a
rebel-held area on Tuesday.
Washington said it believed the deaths were caused by sarin nerve gas
dropped by Syrian aircraft. But Moscow offered an alternative
explanation that would shield Assad: that the poison gas belonged to
rebels and had leaked from an insurgent weapons depot hit by Syrian
Two U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, rejected
Russia's account: "That strains credulity," said one. "Russian
assertions do not comport with reality."
The United States, Britain and France have proposed a draft U.N.
Security Council resolution that would pin the blame on Damascus. But
the Russian Foreign Ministry called the resolution "unacceptable" and
said it was based on "fake information".
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia would take its case blaming the rebels for the poisoning to the United Nations.
"Russia and its armed forces will continue their operations to support
the anti-terrorist operations of Syria's armed forces to free the
country," Peskov told reporters.
Video uploaded to social media showed civilians sprawled on the ground,
some in convulsions, others lifeless. Rescue workers hose down the limp
bodies of small children, trying to wash away chemicals. People wail
and pound on the chests of victims.
The charity Medecins Sans Frontieres said one of its hospitals in Syria
had treated patients "with symptoms – dilated pupils, muscle spasms,
involuntary defecation – consistent with exposure to neuro-toxic agents
such as sarin". The World Health Organization also said the symptoms
were consistent with exposure to a nerve agent.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said the attack had killed more than
100 people. That death toll could not be independently confirmed.
Hasan Haj Ali, commander of the Free Idlib Army rebel group, called the
Russian statement blaming the rebels a "lie" and said rebels did not
have the capability to produce nerve gas.
"Everyone saw the plane while it was bombing with gas," he told Reuters
from northwestern Syria. "Likewise, all the civilians in the area know
that there are no military positions there, or places for the
manufacture (of weapons)."
The incident is the first time Washington has accused Assad of using
sarin since 2013, when hundreds of people died in an attack on a
Damascus suburb. At that time, Washington said Assad had crossed a "red
line" set by then-President Barack Obama.
Obama threatened an air campaign to topple Assad but called it off at
the last minute after the Syrian leader agreed to give up his chemical
arsenal under a deal brokered by Moscow, a decision which Trump has long
said proved Obama's weakness.
The new incident means Trump is faced with same dilemma that faced his
predecessor: whether to openly challenge Moscow and risk deep
involvement in a Middle East war by seeking to punish Assad for using
banned weapons, or compromise and accept the Syrian leader remaining in
power at the risk of looking weak.
Trump described Tuesday's incident as "heinous actions by the Bashar
al-Assad regime", but also faulted Obama for having failed to enforce
the red line four years ago. Obama's spokesman declined to comment.
The draft U.N. Security Council statement condemns the attack and
demands an investigation. Russia has the power to veto it, which it has
done to block all previous resolutions that would harm Assad, most
recently in February.
France's foreign minister said the chemical attack showed Assad was
testing whether the new U.S. administration would stand by Obama-era
demands that he be removed from power.
"It's a test. That's why France repeats the messages, notably to the
Americans, to clarify their position," Jean-Marc Ayrault told RTL radio.
"I told them that we need clarity. What's your position?"
Trump's response to a diplomatic confrontation with Moscow will be
closely watched at home because of accusations by his political
opponents that he is too supportive of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
He has previously said the United States and Russia should work more closely in Syria to fight against Islamic State.
U.S. intelligence agencies say Russia intervened in the U.S.
presidential election last year through computer hacking to help Trump
defeat Hillary Clinton. The FBI and two congressional committees are
investigating whether figures from the Trump campaign colluded with
Moscow, which the White House denies.
The chemical attack in Idlib province, one of the last major
strongholds of rebels that have fought since 2011 to topple Assad,
complicates diplomatic efforts to end a war that has killed hundreds of
thousands of people and driven half of Syrians from their homes.
Over the past several months Western countries, including the United
States, had been quietly dropping their demands that Assad leave power
in any deal to end the war, accepting that the rebels no longer had the
capability to topple him by force.
The use of banned chemical weapons would make it harder for the
international community to sign off on any peace deal that does not
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who two months ago shifted his
country's policy by saying Assad could be allowed to run for
re-election, said on Wednesday that he must go.
"This is a barbaric regime that has made it impossible for us to
imagine them continuing to be an authority over the people of Syria
after this conflict is over."