Russia has rejected a UN investigative report blaming the Syrian government for a deadly sarin-gas attack, casting doubt on whether it will agree to extend the investigation's mandate before it expires next week.
Russia vetoed a U.S. bid to renew the Joint Investigative Mechanism of the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons on October 24. It has since offered to extend the inquiry's mission for six months, but only after an overhaul.
"Without a comprehensive change, it will become a tool to settle accounts with the Syrian authorities," Russian UN Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov said on November 7, criticizing the report as full of "errors and systemic problems" that concluded that the Syrian forces were behind an April attack that killed dozens of civilians in the town of Khan Sheikhun.
The United States and its allies defended the report and called for renewal of the UN investigative mission.
"Russia is trying to shoot the messenger to cover up for the crimes of the Syrian regime," Deputy British UN Ambassador Jonathan Allen told the UN Security Council.
Russia has been Syria's biggest backer in a six-year-old civil war that has killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
Allen said Russia's call for an overhaul of the UN investigative team was "a cynical ploy to discredit a professional, independent, and impartial body" that "has very little if any support in the council and no realistic prospects of success."
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said there could be no higher priority than renewing the investigative team's mandate.
The United States has drafted a resolution to extend its mandate for another 18 months beyond November 17. Haley said she revised the resolution to include some of Russia's proposals, such as embracing the importance of following high standards and sound evidence.
But she said Russia continues "to push unacceptable language only meant to undermine the investigators and divide this council."
Russia is one of five world powers on the UN Security Council that has veto power over resolutions.
"Anyone who prevents us from achieving this goal is aiding and abetting those who have been using chemical weapons," Haley said. "They are helping to ensure, not just that more women and children will die, but that those women and children will die in one of the cruelest, most painful ways possible."
Russia maintains the UN team's latest report on Khan Sheikhun is not credible because the team did not visit Khan Sheikhun or the Syrian air base where the sarin attack allegedly was launched, and instead relied on samples Moscow maintains may have been tampered with by Western intelligence.
But Edmond Mulet, the head of the Joint Investigative Mechanism, said its experts were able to establish that the sarin was dropped in an air strike and that Syrian aircraft were in the area when the attack took place.
Analysis of the sarin used at Khan Sheikhun matched that of the nerve gas found in Syrian stockpiles, Mulet said, adding that this composition "would be very difficult to replicate."
Safronkov shot back that "the chemicals could have been produced anywhere to compromise intentionally the authorities of Syria."
Mulet said his team reached its conclusions after examining 2,247 photos, 1,284 files of video footage, 120 audio files, and 639 documents, and worked according to guidelines set by the Security Council.
Residents, government officials, doctors who treated victims, rescue personnel, and commanders of nonstate armed groups were interviewed as part of the probe, he said.
Mulet said the team examined eight scenarios, including that the scene of the attack might have been staged by rebels to frame the Syrian government, as Russia contends.
The investigation found nothing to prove the incident had been staged, "and when I say nothing, I mean nothing," Mulet said.
As to Russia's criticism that the team didn't visit the site of the attack, Mulet said such a visit would have been of value, but was too dangerous to pursue, as the area is under the control of Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda-linked extremist group.