Russia Says U.S. Broke International Law In Striking Syria, Citing 'Pretext'
Updated at 3:15 p.m. ET
Russian President Vladimir Putin is calling the missile strike President Trump ordered against Syria on Thursday "an act of aggression against a sovereign state delivered in violation of international law under a far-fetched pretext."
At Russia's urging, an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council began shortly after 11:30 a.m. ET Friday to discuss the attack, in which two U.S. guided-missile destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at Syria's Shayrat air base, the facility that hosted warplanes that the U.S. says carried out a chemical weapons strike in Idlib province earlier this week.
The emergency session was led by U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who is currently serving as the Security Council's president.
In the past six years, Haley said, Syria has terrorized its own people and "committed criminal acts that shocked the conscience of all humanity."
She continued, "The international community has repeatedly expressed its outrage. The Joint Investigative Mechanism has found beyond any doubt that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons against its own people multiple times."
Haley then discussed Tuesday's apparent chemical attack, saying Syria had murdered "innocent men, women, and children in the most gruesome way."
"Assad did this because he thought he could get away with it," Haley said. "He thought he could get away with it because he knew Russia would have his back. That changed last night."
As Haley spoke, Syria's ambassador to the U.N., Bashar Jaafari, was seen moving his translation earpiece further away on the desk in front of him.
"Our military destroyed the airfield from which this week's chemical strike took place. We were fully justified in doing so," Haley said. "The moral stain of the Assad regime could no longer go unanswered. His crimes against humanity could no longer be met with empty words. It was time to say 'enough' — but not only say it. It was time to act. Bashar al-Assad must never use chemical weapons again, ever."
She then blamed Iran's government for supporting Assad in Syria and said that Russia also bears "considerable responsibility" for the regime's transgressions.
Haley added that Russia has used its Security Council veto seven times to quash actions on Syria.
Syria's Jaafari spoke at the end of the session, saying that in Thursday night's attack, the U.S. "waged a barbaric, flagrant act of aggression against a base of the Syrian Arab Air Force ... using a number of missiles which led to a number of martyrs, many injured, including women and children, and wide-ranging material damage."
The strike was a violation of the U.N. charter and international norms, Jaafari said, adding that the U.S. had tried to justify its actions with "empty pretexts, fabricated arguments" about Syria's use of chemical weapons.
The ambassador insisted that Syria's army doesn't have chemical weapons and "would never use such weapons in any of its operations against armed terrorist groups."
Earlier in the emergency session, the U.K. ambassador to the United Nations, Matthew Rycroft, said his country supports the U.S. strike "because war crimes have consequences, and the greatest war criminal of all — Bashar al-Assad — has now been put on notice."
Rycroft called the U.S. attack a proportionate response. Later, he added that Russia "sits here today, humiliated by its failure to bring to heel a puppet dictator."
Russia's deputy U.N. ambassador, Vladimir Safronkov, told the Security Council that rebels and terrorists in Syria were celebrating the U.S. strike and using it as an opening for attacks of their own.
Mentioning previous U.S. military actions in Iraq, Libya and Syria, Safronkov told the American delegation, "Think of the consequences. Remember what you've produced in the Middle East."
Addressing Britain's Ambassador Rycroft, the Russian diplomat said, "Stop putting forward these unprofessional arguments and accusations against my country. These are not diplomatic. They are lies."
Safronkov continued emphatically, "Once again, I warn you: Don't even try to get into fights in the Arab world. Nothing will work, and nothing will be achieved. That's why you're getting annoyed. All Arab countries recall your colonial hypocrisy."
The U.S. strike was criticized as an extremely serious violation of international law by Bolivian Ambassador Sacha Llorenti, who referred to a copy of the U.N. charter as he said it "prohibits unilateral actions."
Llorenti also said the U.S. has a history of intervening in other nations, including in Latin America — and to illustrate his argument he held up a photo of former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2003, during his famous "weapons of mass destruction" speech at the U.N.
Before the U.N. session began, Russia notified the U.S.-led coalition in Syria that it intends to suspend the "deconfliction channel" that was created to prevent unintentional encounters between U.S. and Russian forces that are operating in the same country.
Tuesday's attack on the town of Khan Shaykhun has been blamed for dozens of civilian deaths. Thursday night, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. has "very high confidence" that the attacks included the sarin nerve agent.
Syrian President Bashar Assad's office issued a statement calling the U.S. strike "an unjust and arrogant aggression."
Of Trump's justification for the attack on Russia's ally — saying Syria used chemical weapons to kill dozens of its own citizens — the Kremlin's press office said that an international group had ensured that "The Syrian Army has no chemical weapons."
But that international group, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, says that while all the chemical weapons Syria had officially acknowledged possessing were destroyed in 2013, it has since deployed its fact-finding mission in Syria on "numerous occasions" to investigate repeated allegations that Assad's regime was using chemical weapons.
The OPCW says that it has confirmed with a "high degree of confidence" that Syria has previously used chlorine and mustard gas.
Of the accusations that sarin had been used in the April 4 attack, the OPCW said Thursday that it was still collecting and analyzing data, classifying its inquiry as ongoing.
"The OPCW cannot and will not release information about an on-going investigation," the organization said in an update on Friday. It added, "This policy exists to preserve the integrity of the investigatory process and its results as well as to ensure the safety and security of OPCW experts and personnel involved."
The U.S. strike came after widespread claims that Tuesday's attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Shaykhun had deployed chemical agents. Those claims were bolstered Thursday, when the Turkish government — which is allied with Syrian rebels — said autopsies of victims showed evidence of sarin exposure, as the Two-Way reported.
Khan Shaykhun is roughly 60 miles from the Turkish border. After the attack, dozens of victims were brought to a border crossing where the Turkish government had set up a decontamination center, the AP reported yesterday.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said via state-run TASS media that the cruise missile strike was reminiscent of 2003, when the U.S. led an invasion of Iraq "without the consent of the U.N. Security Council and in violation of international law."
Saying that the U.S. attack in Syria had been prompted by photographs rather than facts, Lavrov blamed "speculations on children's photos" for the American strike. He also accused nongovernmental organizations of staging incidents to prompt a move against the Syrian government.
Russia also critiqued the U.S. strike's accuracy: Only 23 out of the 59 cruise missiles that were fired at the air base hit their target, Defense Ministry spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov said Friday, citing Russia's data recording equipment. That's according to TASS, which adds that Russia will now reinforce the Syrian army's air defense system.
Syria's General Command of the Army has issued a statement calling the attack "a blatant act of aggression targeting one of our air bases." According to Syria's state-run news agency, the army also said that with the attack, the U.S. is now a "partner" of ISIS and other terrorist organizations that have targeted Syrian forces.
As The Two-Way has reported, U.S. officials informed Russia — which launched its own military campaign in Syria in fall 2015 — of the impending missile strike. And in planning the attack, White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster said, the U.S. was careful to avoid risk to "third country nationals at that airport — I think you read Russians from that."
Today, Russia seems to be taking little solace from that effort, though Lavrov confirmed that no Russian service members had been harmed.
"This move by Washington ... has dealt a serious blow to Russian-U.S. relations, which are already in a poor state," said Putin's press service.
Correction April 7, 2017
A previous version of this story misattributed Russian remarks before the U.N. Security Council to Ambassador Vitaly Churkin. Churkin died earlier this year. The statements were actually made by Russia's deputy U.N. ambassador, Vladimir Safronkov.