Russia has questioned a report by the United Nations that blames Syrian government forces for two chlorine gas attacks and said the UN Security Council cannot use the conclusions to impose sanctions.
"There are two cases that they suggest are the fault of the Syrian side; we have very serious questions," Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters after the council met behind closed doors in New York to discuss the report on August 30.
"There are a number of questions which have to be clarified before we accept all the findings of the report," he said.
Asked if he thought the report presented enough evidence to impose sanctions on Syria, as the United States, France and Britain contend, Churkin said: "Frankly, I don't, but we continue to analyze the report."
"There is nobody to sanction in the report," he said. "It contains no names, no specifics, no fingerprints...Clearly, there is a smoking gun. We know that chlorine was most likely used, but there are no fingerprints on the gun."
Churkin added that Russia, which has veto power on the council, is ruling out extending the UN inspectors' mandate to investigate further instances of chemical weapons use in Syria, which expires on September 24.
The UN report was the result of a yearlong joint inquiry with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons that was unanimously authorized by the council last year. It also found that Islamic State militants used sulfur mustard gas.
Churkin's first critical comments on the report came as Syria's UN representative also insisted the report did not offer proof of his government's guilt and pits Russia against Western powers, which are demanding that the council take immediate punitive action.
French UN Ambassador Francois Delattre called for a "quick and strong security council response" and said, "We need a resolution with teeth."
British UN Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said the United Kingdom wants "the imposition of a sanctions regime and some form of accountability within international legal mechanisms."
Syria must "pay a price," said U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power. "It is incumbent on the council to act swiftly to show that when we put that Joint Investigative Mechanism in place we were serious about there being meaningful accountability."
She noted that the report "is the first official independent confirmation of what many of us have alleged for a long time, many of us have presented substantial evidence of for a long time, and that is a pattern of chemical weapons use by the Syrian regime."
The use of chemical weapons violates a UN agreement with Syria in 2013 to destroy its chemical weapons. A UN resolution passed at that time said in the event of "any use of chemical weapons by anyone" in Syria in the future, the council could impose sanctions and even authorize military action against Syria.
The council would need to adopt another resolution to impose sanctions on people or entities linked to the attacks.
China and Russia, a close Syrian ally, have previously protected the Syrian government from council action by using their veto power to block resolutions, including a bid to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court for war crimes.
Human Rights Watch called on the council to renew its resolution referring Syria to The Hague court.
"Russia and China don't have a leg to stand on by continuing to obstruct the Security Council," said Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch. "The Security Council diminishes its importance if it doesn't take strong action against demonstrated use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government."
But Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar Jaafari said Western powers have no grounds to punish the regime, as the report lacked "physical evidence" to support its conclusions that chlorine barrel bombs were dropped on civilians.
The report was "totally based on witnesses presented by terrorist armed groups," Jaafari said.