The United States has said it is ready to act in Syria to end chemical attacks and "inhuman suffering" if Russia, Iran, and Syria continue to allegedly ignore a 30-day cease-fire approved by the United Nations, prompting a warning from Moscow that it will strike back if the lives of its servicemen are threatened.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the UN Security Council late on March 12 that a cease-fire the council approved two weeks ago "has failed" and the United States was offering a new 30-day truce that she said has "no counterterrorism loopholes" and will be harder for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and others to ignore.
Haley accused Syria and its allies Russia and Iran of exploiting such "loopholes" to "continue starving and pummeling hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrian civilians" in the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the council that air strikes, shelling, and ground offensives had only intensified in eastern Ghouta since the UN declared a 30-day cease-fire on February 24.
"The Assad regime, Iran, and Russia continue to wage war against their political opponents," Haley said.
"Today, we must ask whether Russia can no longer influence the Assad regime to stop the horrific destruction of hospitals, medical clinics, and ambulances. To stop dropping chemical weapons on villages," she said.
If the warring parties continue to ignore the truce, Haley said, the United States is prepared to take action on its own. She pointed to President Donald Trump's decision last April to order U.S. missile strikes on a Syrian air base, which he said was used to launch a sarin gas attack that killed nearly 100 Syrian civilians.
"We warn any nation that is determined to impose its will through chemical attacks and inhuman suffering, most especially the outlaw Syrian regime: the United States remains prepared to act if we must," she said.
"It is not the path we prefer, but it is a path we have demonstrated we will take, and we are prepared to take again," Haley said. "When the international community consistently fails to act, there are times when states are compelled to take their own action."
Speaking in Moscow on March 13, the chief of the Russian armed forces general staff said that the Russian military would take "retaliatory measures" targeting missiles and their delivery vehicles "if a threat to the lives of our servicemen emerges."
Without offering concrete evidence, General Valery Gerasimov also claimed that Syrian militants are planning to stage a "provocation" involving the use of chemical weapons in order to justify what he said would be a subsequent U.S. strike on government-held neighborhoods in Damascus.
Rather than impose a full cessation of hostilities as called for by the UN, Russian officials say they have enforced five-hour daily breaks in the fighting. They say these interludes have enabled the evacuation of civilians and the injured from battle areas while allowing the delivery of some humanitarian aid.
Despite these measures, at least 1,162 civilians have been killed, including 241 children in the nearly month-long Syrian offensive to retake eastern Ghouta from armed rebels, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
'Russia's Role Will Never Be Forgotten'
Russia's UN Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya said the United States and its allies are "doing nothing but constantly blaming the Syrian regime and putting demands on Russia."
"The government of Syria has every right to try to remove the threat to the safety of its citizens," Nebenzya said, maintaining that an Islamist militant group connected with Al-Qaeda has a presence in Ghouta and was specifically excluded from the UN cease-fire resolution.
"The suburbs of Damascus cannot remain a hotbed of terrorism," he said.
Moreover, the cease-fire resolution was never intended to put in place an immediate truce, Nebenzya maintained.
"What we are talking about is a preliminary agreement among the parties as a precondition for sustained de-escalation in all difficult areas of Syria, not only eastern Ghouta," he said. "This is the only realistic way forward."
Nebenzya warned that any "unilateral use of force against sovereign Syria" by the United States would "adversely impact stability in the Middle East."
But U.S. allies joined in blaming Russia for allowing Assad's forces to continue fighting.
Britain’s acting UN ambassador Jonathan Allen said Syria "will continue to pound eastern Ghouta until they have a complete military victory there," and said Russia's reputation will suffer for continuing to support Assad.
"Russias role -- bombing alongside him, protecting him from accountability -- will never be forgotten," Allen said.
Russia is supporting Syria in "deliberately continuing its military operations," French UN Ambassador Francois Delattre said.
"Let’s be clear about it, civilians are not a collateral damage of this offensive - they are the target," he said. "Russia can stop the bloodbath."
The United States and its allies offered a new cease-fire resolution eliminating what they called the terrorism "loophole" Syria and Russia have cited as their reason for continued fighting.
The new cease-fire resolution would require a 30-day cessation of hostilities throughout eastern Ghouta and Damascus immediately upon adoption by the council to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid and civilian and medical evacuations.
On March 12, Syrian forces pounded two rebel towns in eastern Ghouta, pressing on with a Russia-backed offensive that has so far allowed government fighters to retake nearly 60 percent of the enclave.
More than 1,000 people, including many children, are in urgent need of evacuation, according to the UN.