MOSCOW/BEIRUT • Russia suggested yesterday that it would publicly stand by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad despite international outrage over a chemical weapons attack that left at least 72 people dead a day earlier.
This set the stage for an acrimonious UN Security Council meeting called by the US, Britain and France to condemn the regime's alleged war crime and demand a probe.
Western countries, including the United States, blamed Mr Assad's armed forces for the chemical attack, which caused scores of people to choke to death, including 20 children, in Khan Sheikhoun, a town in a rebel-held area of northern Syria hit by government air strikes.
Washington said it believed the deaths were caused by sarin nerve gas dropped by Syrian aircraft. However, Moscow offered an alternative explanation that could shield Mr Assad: It said it believed the poison gas had leaked from a rebel chemical weapons depot struck by Syrian bombs.
The Russian Defence Ministry said in a statement that the building housed "a warehouse making bombs, with toxic substances", without saying whether the strike was deliberate. The ministry said the "arsenal of chemical weapons" was intended for fighters in Iraq, describing its information as "completely reliable and objective".
Washington, London and Paris had proposed a resolution to be put to the vote at the United Nations Security Council yesterday, blaming Mr Assad's forces for the deadly attack and calling for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to quickly report findings on the attack.
But Russia said it would veto the measure, as it has often done with previous Security Council resolutions concerning Syria.
The proposed UN resolution on the chemical weapons attack in Syria is "unacceptable" for Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying yesterday. "We do not believe it is expedient to pass a resolution on the chemical weapons attack in its present form," she added.
Separately, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow's position on Mr Assad remained unchanged.
The Russian stance sets US President Donald Trump's new administration on course for a head-on diplomatic collision with Moscow.
Mr Trump described Tuesday's incident as "heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime", but also faulted former US president Barack Obama for having failed to enforce a "red line" four years ago, when hundreds of people died in a sarin gas attack on a Damascus suburb in 2013.
Mr Obama threatened an air campaign to topple Mr Assad's regime, 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.
The new incident means Mr Trump is faced with the same dilemma his predecessor faced: Whether to openly challenge Moscow and risk deep involvement in a Middle East war by seeking to punish Mr Assad for using banned weapons, or to compromise and accept the Syrian leader remaining in power at the risk of looking weak.
Syria's denial of having a hand in the attack did little to quiet international condemnation, with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres saying the "horrific events" showed "war crimes are going on in Syria".
Others have blamed Damascus more directly for the attack, including British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who said that "all the evidence I have seen suggests this was the Assad regime".
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also blamed the regime, saying: "It is clear that this is how Bashar al-Assad operates: with brutal, unabashed barbarism."
REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE