The United States and Russia are pushing competing plans at the United Nations to extend the work of a UN investigative body charged with determining who is responsible for chemical weapons attacks in Syria, media reported on November 2.
Russia vetoed a U.S.-sponsored plan presented to the UN Security Council on October 24 that would have renewed the mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) of the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for one year.
The group's authority is due to expire on November 17. A new U.S. resolution now circulating before the council would renew the mandate for two years while affirming the group's authority to conduct investigations of alleged chemical attacks in Syria "in a manner they deem appropriate," according to a draft of the document seen by media.
But Russia, which was dissatisfied with the JIM's report last week blaming the Syrian government for a sarin gas attack in April that killed dozens of Syrian civilians, is pushing for a more limited extension of the group's mandate, media reported.
Russia's resolution would extend the JIM's mandate for only six months and calls for changes in the way the group investigates chemical incidents, according to a draft of the document seen by media.
In Moscow, Mikhail Ulyanov, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry's arms control and non-proliferation department, criticized the latest JIM report on the sarin attack in Khan Sheikhun and said the ground rules must be changed to include on-site inspections in the future.
He argued that the Khan Sheikhoun report was unsubstantiated and ignored evidence suggesting that sarin could have been used by Syrian rebels in a scheme to blame Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government.
Ulyanov particularly criticized the JIM for failing to take samples from the site of the attack in Khan Sheikhoun and the Shayrat air base where Western governments maintain that the attack was launched by Assad's air force.
"Imagine a criminal investigation in which police refuse to visit the site of the crime. No court will ever accept it," Ulyanov said. "But they consider it possible to do such thing at the UN Security Council.
To establish its findings, the JIM relied on witness testimony, video footage, photographs, and satellite imagery, along with analysis of samples from Khan Sheikhun, some of which were obtained from Turkey.
Russia, as Assad's biggest backer in a six-year civil war that has killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of people, has repeatedly taken Syria's side in debates before the UN council.
The United States and its Western allies on the council are likely to reject Russia's proposed changes in the JIM's mandate.The United States, France, and Britain have all praised the JIM report on Khan Sheikhoun as professional and impartial.
The White House late on November 1 said the JIM's findings on what it called the "unconscionable" Khan Sheikhoun attack"underscored the brutal and horrifying barbarism of Bashar al-Assad and make the protection provided by Russia even more egregious."
The White House added that "Russia’s attempts to undermine and eliminate the JIM show a callous disregard for the suffering and loss of life caused by the use of chemical weapons, and an utter lack of respect for international norms."
The Khan Sheikhoun attack, which killed many children, sparked outrage around the world and prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to launch missile strikes against the Shayrat air base where he said the attack was launched.
Ulyanov said the JIM's conclusion that a Syrian warplane dropped a bomb containing sarin on Khan Sheikhoun isn't supported by images of the explosion site that show a crater that he said could only have been left by an explosive device planted on the surface.
Russia's draft UN resolution urges the JIM to send investigators to Khan Sheikhoun and Shayrat as soon as possible — and it urges the JIM "to reevaluate its earlier assessments and conclusions," according to a draft seen by media.
The draft also calls for the recruitment of JIM staffers from "as wide a geographical area as possible."
The security council is scheduled to take up the JIM's latest report on November 7.
With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters