Russia and China on Tuesday vetoed a Western-backed UN resolution that would have imposed sanctions on Syria over chemical weapons use, in the first clash at the Security Council since US President Donald Trump took office.
The twin vetoes came as peace talks in Geneva showed no signs of progress on ending the nearly six-year war in Syria.
It was the seventh time that Russia, Syria’s top military ally, has used its veto power to shield the Damascus regime. China has backed Moscow by using its veto six times on Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin warned ahead of the vote that imposing sanctions on Syria was “completely inappropriate” while talks were ongoing in Geneva on ending the war.
US Ambassador Nikki Haley shot back: “This resolution is very appropriate.”
“It is a sad day on the Security Council when members start making excuses for other member states killing their own people.”
“The world is definitely a more dangerous place,” she told the council after the measure was rejected.
The resolution drafted by Britain, France and the United States won nine votes in favor, while three countries opposed it — Bolivia, China and Russia. Egypt, Ethiopia and Kazakhstan abstained.
UN resolutions require nine positive votes and no veto to be adopted.
The resolution would have put 11 Syrians, mainly military commanders, and 10 entities linked to chemical attacks in 2014 and 2015 on a UN sanctions blacklist.
It included a ban on the sale of helicopters and of chemical agents to the Syrian armed forces or the government.
A UN-led investigation concluded in October that the Syrian air force had dropped chlorine barrel-bombs from helicopters on three opposition-held villages in 2014 and 2015.
French Ambassador Francois Delattre said the vote was a “moment of truth” for the council, arguing that chemical weapons use was a “negation of all civilization.”
In Paris, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault took aim at Russia, saying it bore a “heavy responsibility toward the Syrian people and humanity as a whole.”
British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson called China and Russia’s veto “deeply disappointing.”
“The Security Council’s own investigation has found attacks were committed by the Syrian regime and Daesh on the Syrian people. Despite support from the majority of the Security Council, Russia, along with China, has chosen to prevent action,” Johnson said in a statement.
The joint panel by the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) also found that Islamic State jihadists used mustard gas in an attack in 2015.
The vote marked the first major council action by the new Trump administration, which is seeking warmer ties with Russia.
The United States has backed rebel groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and leads a military coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.
Britain and France had circulated the proposed measure in December and the new US administration joined as a co-sponsor of the draft resolution this month, indicating that it was ready to confront Russia on Syria.
Russian Deputy Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov echoed Putin’s view that imposing sanctions would have undermined peace talks and described the draft resolution as a “provocation” by the Western “troika”.
Chinese Ambassador Liu Jieyi argued that sanctions were premature and that the UN-OPCW panel should be allowed to complete its investigations.
“At present, investigations are still ongoing and therefore it is too early to reach a final conclusion,” Liu told the council.
Aside from China and Russia, Britain, France and the United States are the other veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council.
The Syrian government has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons in the war that has killed 310,000 people since March 2011.
UN-brokered talks that opened on Thursday in Geneva ran into hurdles after Russia insisted that counter-terrorism be added to the agenda — putting pressure on opposition groups with ties to Islamist fighters.
Putin — whose military intervention in Syria helped turn the tables in favor of Assad — lamented that the negotiations in Switzerland are “not going as smoothly as hoped.”