US preparing sanctions on Russia over support of Assad

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The US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has the United States is preparing new sanctions on Russia over its continued support of Syrian President Bashar-al Assad, a day after US-led air strikes on suspected chemical weapons facilities.

Ms Haley said that the sanctions would be announced on Monday by US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

“They will go directly to any sort of companies that were dealing with equipment related to Assad and chemical weapons use,” Ms Haley said.

It comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin said further Western air strikes in Syria would provoke “chaos” in international relations.

Mr Putin made the comments while speaking to his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani by telephone.

Mr Putin said: “If such actions, carried out in violation of the United Nations Charter, are repeated, that would inevitably provoke chaos in international relations,” according to a statement from the Kremlin.

The two leaders “found that this illegal action seriously damaged the prospects of a political settlement in Syria,” the statement said.

Mr Putin denounced “with the utmost firmness” the strikes which he described as “an act of aggression against a sovereign state which is at the forefront of the fight against terrorism”.

Earlier, Ms Haley said that the United States would not pull its troops out of Syria until its goals were accomplished.

She listed three aims for the United States – ensuring that chemical weapons are not used in any way that pose a risk to US interests, that Islamic State is defeated and that there is a good vantage point to watch what Iran is doing.

She said: “It is our goal to see American troops come home, but we are not going to leave until we know we have accomplished those things”.

She has also said this afternoon that the US would not have any one-on-one talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

US President Donald Trump, who on Friday joined France and Britain in ordering missile strikes against Syrian targets, has sent mixed signals on Syria.

He has made clear he wants to withdraw the roughly 2,000 US troops in Syria involved in the anti-Islamic State campaign.

But he appeared to contradict that message when he said yesterday that Western allies were prepared to “sustain” the military response if Assad does not stop using prohibited chemical weapons.

Following yesterday’s air strikes, British foreign minister Boris Johnson has said western powers will study “options” if Syria’s government again uses chemical weapons, but nothing is planned as yet.

Mr Johnson made the comments following raids on Syrian targets, which triggered a heated debate over their legality and effectiveness.

US, French and British missile attacks struck at the heart of Syria’s chemical weapons programme yesterday, in retaliation to a suspected poison gas attack a week ago.

However, the restrained assault appeared unlikely to halt Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s progress in the seven-year-old civil war.

The bombing, denounced by Damascus and its allies as an illegal act of aggression, was the biggest intervention by Western countries against Assad and his powerful ally Russia.

But the three countries said the strikes were limited to Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities and not aimed at toppling Assad or intervening in the civil war.

Speaking on BBC’s Andrew Marr show, Mr Johnson threw his weight behind UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to take part in the attack, saying it was the right thing to do to deter further use of chemical weapons.

“There is no proposal on the table at the moment for further attacks because so far – thank heavens – the Assad regime have not been so foolish as to launch another chemical weapons attack,” he said.

He added: “If and when such a thing were to happen, then clearly with allies we would study what the options were.”

His comments appeared in line with those of Ms Haley, who said at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council that President Donald Trump told her that if Syria uses poisonous gas again, “The United States is locked and loaded.”

The Western countries said the strikes were aimed at preventing more Syrian chemical weapons attacks after a suspected poison gas attack in Douma on 7 April killed up to 75 people.

They blame Assad’s government for the attack.

However, British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn said that the legal basis used to support the British role was debatable, adding that he would only support action backed by the United Nations Security Council.

In Damascus, Assad told a group of visiting Russian lawmakers that Western missile strikes on his country were an act of aggression, Russian news agencies reported.

The agencies quoted the lawmakers as saying Assad was in a “good mood” and had praised the Soviet-era air defence systems used by Syria to help to repel the Western attacks.

Assad accepted an invitation to visit the Siberian region of Khanty-Mansi in Russia. It was not clear when the visit would take place.

Mr Trump called the operation a success.

Allies launch UN bid for chemical weapons investigation

The United States, France and Britain have launched a new bid at the United Nations to investigate chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

The three allies circulated a joint draft resolution at the UN Security Council that also calls for unimpeded deliveries of humanitarian aid, enforcing a ceasefire and demands that Syria engage in UN-led peace talks.

The move signalled the West’s resolve to return to diplomacy after the air strikes on Syria.

Among the contentious proposals, the draft resolution would establish an independent investigation of allegations of chemical attacks in Syria with the aim of identifying the perpetrators.

Russia in November used its veto three times to bury a previous UN-led inquiry which found that Syrian forces had used sarin in the attack on Khan Sheikhun in April last year.

The measure would instruct the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to report within 30 days on whether Syria has fully disclosed its chemical weapons stockpile.

The West has accused Syria of failing to live up to its commitment to scrap its chemical weapons programme under a deal reached between the United States and Russia.

The Security Council held an emergency meeting yesterday at the request of Russia, which failed in a bid to condemn the air strikes.

Only China and Bolivia voted alongside Russia in favour of its draft resolution condemning the military action, while eight countries opposed it. Four countries abstained.

Chemical inspectors to begin work in Douma

Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will begin their investigation later today at the site of the alleged chemical attack near Damascus, a senior official said.

“The fact-finding team arrived in Damascus on Saturday and is due to go to Douma on Sunday,” Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Ayman Soussan told AFP.

A delegation of experts from the OPCW, based in The Hague, is investigating the attack on Douma.

Western powers say chemical substances, most likely chlorine and sarin, were used in the attack and killed at least 40 civilians.

Mr Soussan reiterated a pledge by the Syrian government that the chemical experts would be allowed to investigate unimpeded.

“We will ensure they can work professionally, objectively, impartially and free of any pressure,” he said.

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