Russia clashes again with US and allies over Syria attacks

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Russia has clashed again with the United States and its Western allies over Syria, saying airstrikes on suspected chemical sites in the war-torn nation have set back any political negotiations to end the seven-year conflict.

The U.S., France and Britain countered that recent events are an opportunity to get the political process back on track.

The exchange came Tuesday at the sixth meeting of the U.N. Security Council in nine days on Syria.

Russia called the council meeting on the humanitarian situations in Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State extremist group's "caliphate" until its ouster in October, and Rukban on the Jordan-Syria border where some 50,000 displaced Syrians have been left stranded.

There was a briefing by U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock, who said people in both places need humanitarian help.

But Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, strongly criticized the U.S. and other members of the global coalition that routed IS for leaving Raqqa in ruins, then quickly turned to what he called the "hypocritical behavior" of the three Western allies.

Russia and close ally Syria deny responsibility for a suspected poison gas attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma on April 7. The Western allies say they have proof that President Bashar Assad's government was to blame and staged airstrikes on Syrian chemical sites Friday.

Nebenzia told the council that not even a day after the airstrikes, the U.S., France and Britain circulated a draft U.N. resolution calling for an urgent resumption of negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition as well as an independent body to assess blame for chemical attacks and humanitarian access throughout Syria.

"Before airstrikes, we noted the readiness of the Syrian government to participate in the Geneva negotiations," Nebenzia said. "Now, these efforts have been set back considerably."

He said it is hard to imagine that after the attacks "Syrian authorities would be interested to talk."

He also said the goal that the U.S., Britain and France have spoken of — to put Syrian President Bashar Assad on trial following peace negotiations — "is simply unrealistic."

French Ambassador Francois Delattre and British Ambassador Karen Pierce said the Security Council should use what happened as an opportunity to restart U.N.-facilitated negotiations.

Kelley Currie, the deputy U.S. ambassador for economic and social affairs, accused Russia of calling the council meeting as part of its "messaging campaign to try to distract from the atrocities committed by the Assad regime."

"More than ever, we need to focus on ensuring that this council's demands for a cease-fire and for unhindered humanitarian access actually get implemented on the ground," she said. "But that would require the Assad regime to stop its brutal campaign against the Syrian people, and the countries with influence over Assad to join us in demanding that the Assad regime stop its senseless killing."

Currie said the United States will remain focused on achieving the goal of ending the war and helping the Syrian people "no matter how many times our Russian colleagues convene these cynical, thinly disguised diversions."

Nebenzia rejected the U.N. resolution circulated by the U.S., France and Britain as "untimely" and "unnecessary" and told the Western allies that for any possibility of a political solution, "first, you need to undo the damage which you yourself have created."

He said Russia wants the U.S. and its allies to "stop aggressive actions and threats to use force" against Syria and to cease undermining Syria's sovereignty and territorial integrity by maintaining foreign forces in the country, looting its resources and "stoking hatred" among its different populations.

Nebenzia said the Western allies should also end "hateful rhetoric" against Syria and Russia, separate military groups "from terrorists once and for all," and provide humanitarian assistance to Syria.

Finally, he called on opposition groups "to immediately refrain from provoking foreign aggression by organizing provocations with chemical weapons." He said "their Western sponsors" must not "use these provocations."