UNITED NATIONS — Britain, France and the United States on Wednesday held off calling a vote at the UN Security Council on a resolution demanding an investigation of the suspected chemical attack in Syria to allow time for negotiations with Russia.
However, a vote on the draft text presented by the Western trio could be held as early as Thursday, diplomats said.
Diplomats at the UN Security council sparred on Wednesday over whether to hold Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government responsible for the chemical weapons attack that killed more than 80 people in northern Syria, while US intelligence officials, Doctors Without Borders and the UN healthy agency said evidence pointed to nerve gas exposure.
The Trump administration and other world leaders said the Syrian government was to blame, but Moscow, a key ally of Assad, said the assault was caused by a Syrian airstrike that hit a rebel stockpile of chemical arms.
Early US assessments showed the use of chlorine gas and traces of the nerve agent sarin in the attack Tuesday that terrorized the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, according to two US officials who weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.
Israeli military intelligence officers also believe Syrian government forces were behind the attack, Israeli defense officials told the Associated Press. Israel believes Assad has tons of chemical weapons still in his arsenal, despite a concerted operation three years ago by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to rid the government of its stockpile, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to brief the media.
Earlier Wednesday, Russia rejected a draft resolution as “categorically unacceptable,” suggesting it is ready to veto the measure if no compromise text is agreed.
British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft told reporters that “the negotiations continue with our colleagues on the Security Council and I would not anticipate them coming to a conclusion today.”
“We very much hope that it will be possible for everyone to come together,” Rycroft said. “If not, we will press ahead.
The draft resolution backs a probe by the Organization of the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and demands that the Syrian government cooperate to provide information about its military operations on the day of the assault.
At least 72 people, including 20 children, died in Tuesday’s attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province. The Syrian Obseravtory for Human Rights has put the death toll at over 80.
Dozens more were left gasping for air, convulsing and foaming at the mouth, doctors said.
Victims of the attack showed signs of nerve gas exposure, the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders said, including suffocation, convulsions, constricted pupils and involuntary defecation. Paramedics were using fire hoses to wash the chemicals from the bodies of victims.
Medical teams also reported smelling bleach on survivors of the attack, suggesting chlorine gas was also used, Doctors Without Borders said.
The magnitude of the attack was reflected in the images of the dead — children piled in heaps for burial, a father carrying his lifeless young twins.
It is thought to be the worst chemical weapons attack in Syria since 2013, when sarin gas was used.
The visuals from the scene were reminiscent of that 2013 attack on the suburbs of Damascus that left hundreds dead and prompted an agreement brokered by the US and Russia to disarm Assad’s chemical stockpile. Western nations blamed government forces for that attack, where effects were concentrated on opposition-held areas.
Britain, France and the United States blame Assad’s forces for the attack Tuesday, but the Syrian army has denied any involvement.
Russia turned up at the negotiations with a rival draft resolution that made no reference to specific demands that Damascus cooperate with an inquiry, diplomats said.
However, French Ambassador Francois Delattre told reporters that negotiations were being held “in a good spirit” and that “there is a chance” for agreement.
“It’s time for action — no doubt about it,” he added.
But other diplomats sounded more pessimistic, saying a Russian veto appeared likely. “It’s not going well,” a council diplomat said.
The talks on the proposed council measure opened after US Ambassador Nikki Haley warned of unilateral US action if the United Nations fails to respond to the attack.
“When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action,” she told an emergency council meeting on the attack.
“When you kill innocent children, innocent babies — babies, little babies — with a chemical gas that is so lethal, people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines,” US President Donald Trump said Wednesday in the White House Rose Garden. The president declined to say what the US would do in response, but he did say that his “attitude towards Syria and Assad has changed very much.