UN report finds Assad regime responsible for chemical attack
LONDON - United Nations investigators on Thursday blamed a sarin gas massacre on Bashar al-Assad's regime, as the United States renewed its warning that he has no role in Syria's future.
The expert panel's report and tough remarks by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson overshadowed the announcement that UN-sponsored peace talks will resume next month.
More than 80 people died on April 4 this year when sarin gas projectiles were fired into Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the Idlib province of northwestern Syria.
Images of dead and dying victims, including young children, in the aftermath of the attack provoked global outrage and a US cruise missile strike on a regime air base.
The UN placed the death toll at 83 while the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it was 87.
Syria and its ally Russia had suggested that a rebel weapon may have detonated on the ground but the UN panel confirmed Western intelligence reports that blamed the regime.
"The panel is confident that the Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin at Khan Sheikhun on 4 April 2017," the report says.
The report will increase pressure on Assad's regime just as Washington, in the wake of battlefield victories against the Islamic State group, renews calls for him to step down.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's comments to reporters came during a visit to Geneva in which he met UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, who is trying to convene a new round of peace talks next month.
The secretary said US policy has not changed, but his remarks represented tougher language from an administration that had previously said Assad's fate is not a priority.
"We do not believe there is a future for the Assad regime, the Assad family," Tillerson said.
"I think I've said it on a number of occasions. The reign of the Assad family is coming to an end, and the only issue is how should that be brought about."
Russia, which is running a parallel peace process with Iran and Turkey in a series of talks in the Kazakh capital Astana, reacted coolly to Tillerson's remarks.
"I think we should not pre-empt any future for anybody," said Moscow's UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, who on Tuesday had vetoed a US attempt to extend the gas attack probe.
"Even the first cursory read shows that many inconsistencies, logical discrepancies, using doubtful witness accounts and unverified evidence... all of this is still (in the report)," Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Interfax news agency.
Ryabkov said other nations were seeking to use the report to "resolve their own strategic geopolitical issues in Syria".
Russia would analyse the findings and publish a response soon, he added.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the UN panel's report had reached a "clear conclusion" and urged the "international community to unite to hold Assad's regime accountable."
"I call on Russia to stop covering up for its abhorrent ally and keep its own commitment to ensure that chemical weapons are never used again," he said.
- Civil war -
De Mistura hopes to convene an eighth round of Syrian peace talks between Assad's regime and an opposition coalition in Geneva from November 28.
These will be focused on drafting a new constitution and holding UN-supervised elections in a country devastated by several overlapping bloody civil conflicts.
Assad's regime has been saved by Russian and Iranian military intervention and he insists that he will not stand down in the face of what he regards as "terrorist" rebels.
But Western capitals, the opposition and many of Syria's Arab neighbors hold Assad's forces responsible for the bulk of the 330,000 people who have died in the conflict.
In addition to chemical weapons attacks against his own people, his government is accused of overseeing the large-scale torture and murder of civilian detainees.
The previous US administration often said that Assad's days were numbered, but then president Barack Obama decided not to use force to punish his chemical weapons attacks.
His successor, President Donald Trump, did order one missile strike on a Syrian air base in response to a chemical attack.
But US policy has otherwise focused solely on the defeat of the Islamic State jihadist group, driving it out of its last bastions in eastern Syria's Euphrates valley.
Tillerson said, however, that he hopes a way to oust Assad will "emerge" as part of de Mistura's UN-mediated talks.
- 'Moment of truth' -
He argued that the UN Security Council resolution setting up the peace process already contains a procedure to hold elections that Washington does not think Assad can win.
"The only thing that changed is when this administration came into office, we took a view that it is not a prerequisite that Assad go before that process starts, rather the mechanism by which Assad departs will likely emerge from that process," he said.
Earlier, de Mistura had told the UN Security Council that with the defeat of the Islamic State, the Syrian peace process had reached a "moment of truth."
"We need to get the parties into real negotiations," the envoy said.
Seven rounds of talks have achieved only incremental progress toward a political deal, with negotiations deadlocked over Assad's fate.
The opposition insists any settlement must provide for a transition away from Assad's rule but, as government forces make gains, there is little likelihood of a breakthrough.