Syria Chemical Attack 'Moment of Truth,' UN Chief Says

Despite unanimous condemnations from U.S., Britain and France, Russia and China's voting history suggests they may veto any resolution against Syrian regime.

An unconscious Syrian child receives treatment at a hospital in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, following a suspected toxic gas attack on April 4, 2017.
AFP PHOTO / Omar haj kadour

A suspected chemical weapons attack in northern Syria that killed at least 100 on Tuesday was a "moment of truth" that must be investigated, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said Wednesday.

Guterres told reporters at a Syria donor conference in Brussels that he hopes "this moment will be able to mobilize the capacity of all those that have responsibilities in this situation."

He says "the horrific events of yesterday demonstrate that unfortunately war crimes are going on in Syria, that international humanitarian law remains being violated frequently."

He added he is "confident that the Security Council will live up to its responsibilities," with major powers set to convene there later in the day.

Guterres remarks came as Syrian monitoring group said the death toll from the attack on a northern town the previous day had increased to 72, though an opposition health official in the area told Haaretz on Tuesday night that 100 bodies had been counted and identified so far. Activists also reported Wednesday that renewed airstrikes had hit the same town.

The United States, France and Britain have all condemned the attack they described independently as a "war crime" if proven to be true and suggested that Syrian president Bashar Assad was most likely responsible.

The U.S., however, also stated that there is no fundamental option of "regime change" in Syria, calling the Assad regime "a political reality."

The other two members of the Security Council with veto power over any resolution, Russia and China, have been far more reserved regarding the attack.

Russia, Assad's ally and protector both militarily and diplomatically on the Security Council, has been more reserved regarding the alleged chemical attack, and claimed that the incident was the result of a regime airstrike hitting a rebel chemical weapons stockpile.

Russia said ahead of the meeting that its position in support of the Syrian regime would remain unchanged and that it would submit information from its Defense Ministry to the Security Council.

No Chinese statement has been forthcoming.

While Russia's comments seemed to suggest that it would block any upcoming resolution against the Syrian regime, it was less certain what position China would take.

However, in February, China joined Russia in vetoing a resolution to impose international sanctions against the Assad government over accusations of previous chemical weapons attacks during the six-year Syrian conflict.

Russian President Vladimir Putin described that resolution as "totally inappropriate" on the grounds that it would harm ongoing peace talks between the warring parties in Syria.

On Tuesday, UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura called the attack "horrific" and confirmed that there will be a UN Security Council meeting in order to ascertain accountability of the attack.

Meanwhile, UN war crimes investigators are reported to have opened an investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons, and the subsequent attack on a nearby medical facility where those injured in the attack were reportedly being treated.