UNITED NATIONS • UN investigators have blamed a sarin gas massacre on President Bashar al-Assad's regime, as the United States renewed its warning that he has no role in Syria's future.
The expert panel's report and tough remarks by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Thursday overshadowed the announcement that UN-sponsored peace talks will resume next month.
More than 87 people died on April 4 this year when sarin gas projectiles were fired into Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the Idlib province of north-western Syria.
Syria and its ally Russia had suggested that a rebel weapon may have detonated on the ground but the UN panel confirmed Western intelligence reports that blamed the regime. "The panel is confident that the Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin at Khan Sheikhun on April 4, 2017," the report said.
It will increase pressure on the Assad regime just as the US, in the wake of battlefield victories against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group, renews calls for him to step down.
Mr Tillerson's comments came after a meeting in Geneva with UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, who is trying to convene a new round of peace talks next month.
"We do not believe there is a future for the Assad regime, the Assad family," Mr Tillerson said. "I think I've said it on a number of occasions. The reign of the Assad family is coming to an end, and the only issue is how should that be brought about."
>87 Number of people who died on April 4 when sarin gas projectiles were fired into Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the north-western Syrian Idlib province.
Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov criticised the report yesterday, saying it contained inconsistencies and unverified evidence. "Even the first cursory read shows that many inconsistencies, logical discrepancies, using doubtful witness accounts and unverified evidence... all of this is still (in the report)," he told Interfax news agency.
Mr Ryabkov said other nations were seeking to use the report to "resolve their own strategic geopolitical issues in Syria". Russia would analyse the findings and publish a response soon, he added.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the UN panel's report had reached a "clear conclusion" and urged the "international community to unite to hold Assad's regime accountable".
He added: "I call on Russia to stop covering up for its abhorrent ally and keep its own commitment to ensure that chemical weapons are never used again."
Mr de Mistura hopes to convene an eighth round of Syrian peace talks between Mr Assad's regime and an opposition coalition in Geneva from Nov 28. These will be focused on drafting a new charter and holding UN-supervised polls in a country devastated by several overlapping bloody civil conflicts.
Mr Assad's regime has been saved by Russian and Iranian military intervention and he insists that he will not stand down in the face of what he regards as "terrorist" rebels. But Western capitals, the opposition and many of Syria's Arab neighbours hold Mr Assad's forces responsible for the bulk of the 330,000 people who have died in the conflict.
Mr Tillerson said, however, that he hopes a way to oust Mr Assad will "emerge" as part of the UN-mediated talks. He also argued that the UN Security Council resolution setting up the peace process already contains a procedure to hold elections that the US does not think Mr Assad can win.
Seven rounds of talks have achieved only incremental progress towards a political deal, with negotiations deadlocked over Mr Assad's fate. The opposition insists any settlement must provide for a transition away from Mr Assad's rule but, as government forces make gains, there is little likelihood of a breakthrough.