Russia and China have blocked a push by Western governments at the United Nations to punish the Syrian government over chemical weapons attacks, the latest in a string of vetoes by Moscow and Beijing on resolutions about the six-year-old conflict.
The February 28 veto of a UN Security Council resolution calling for sanctions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government raised criticism from Western powers and international rights watchdogs.
The resolution had been backed by Western governments in response to the conclusions of the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) that Assad’s forces were responsible for toxic gas attacks and that Islamic State (IS) militants had deployed mustard gas.
Assad's government denies responsibility for any chemical weapons attacks, and Russia -- Assad’s chief backer -- has expressed skepticism about the findings of the inquiry.
The proposed resolution called for sanctions against Syrian officials, military commanders, companies, and other entities allegedly involved in chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
The resolution reached the threshold of support from nine of the Security Council's 15 members needed to be passed.
But the vetoes by permanent members Russia and China -- their seventh and sixth, respectively, on Syria since the war erupted there in 2011 -- prevented its approval.
The vote marked one of the first standoffs at the UN between Moscow and Washington since the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump, who has said he would like to cooperate with Russia to fight IS extremists in Syria.
Western governments delivered scathing criticism of Russia after the vote.
Trump's ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said: "It is a sad day on the Security Council when members start making excuses for other member states killing their own people."
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Moscow bears "heavy responsibility towards the Syrian people and humanity as a whole."
Ayrault voiced "deep regret" that the Security Council could not pass the resolution.
"It is crucial that we do not let the crimes of those who choose to use such weapons go unpunished,” Ayrault said. “This is why France took the initiative, with its partners, on this resolution."
Moscow's Deputy Ambassador to the UN Vladimir Safronkov denounced criticism of Russia at the council as "outrageous" and called the resolution a "provocation" by the Western "troika" -- a reference to the governments behind the document: Britain, France, and the United States.
"Today's clash or confrontation is not a result of our negative vote," Safronkov said. "It is a result of the fact that you decided on provocation while you knew well ahead of time our position."
Russian President Vladimir Putin said ahead of the vote on February 28 that the sanctions "are not acceptable now" because they would hamper peace talks.
The vetoes by Russia and China also drew sharp criticism from rights activists, with the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) calling their votes a "cynical decision."
Louis Charbonneau, the United Nations director for HRW, said that "in the wake of Russia's seventh veto on a Syria resolution, UN member states should explore and pursue alternate avenues for accountability for the serious crimes of the Syrian government."