The Cable

Russians Channel Sy Hersh to Attack U.S. Chemical Weapons Claim

Russia's U.N. envoy today accused Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, of intentionally misleading the public about Syria's chemical weapons -- and used a much-disputed article by controversial journalist Sy Hersh to press his claims.

The allegation was contained in a lengthy statement that Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, today presented behind closed doors to the U.N. Security Council and repeated following the session to reporters. Churkin's government has longed maintained that the Syrian opposition, and not the government, used chemical weapons in Syria. Churkin cited as evidence of American dissembling an article by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Seymour Hersh's claim in the London Review of Books that U.S. intelligence officials had previously briefed top American officials on the Syrian opposition mastery of Sarin production. (That report has faced criticism, including in Foreign Policy, on the ground that it mischaracterized basic facts about Syrian munitions.)

"The chemical attack on August 21 was carried out by the opposition," Churkin told reporters. "Still, the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations stated on September 16 and I quote: ‘it's very important to note that we have no evidence that the opposition possesses Sarin.' The statement was to say the least an attempt to mislead the public opinion."

But Russia has continued to challenge that account, suggesting that Syrian rebels may have carried out a chemical weapons attack designed to maximize casualties while making it look like the government was the culprit. "Who is responsible for CW use?" Churkin asked. There are "two possible versions. If we are to assume they were used by the government, there are many contradictions."

Speaking behind closed doors, Power stood behind previous U.S. assertions that the Syrian government was behind the deadliest nerve agent attack in a quarter of a century, having fired sarin-laced shells at civilians in the Damascus suburb of Al Ghouta on August 21, killing as many as 1,400 people. She also took a poke at the Russian diplomats' account, suggesting that "a Christmas vacation might do the Russian ambassador good," according to the notes of a diplomat inside the room. (Power's blast sounded a lot like a line her predecessor, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, used in a Christmas season spat over Syria two years ago with Churkin. "Happy Holidays to my good friend Amb Churkin, who's clearly had a long month as Sec Council president," Rice wrote in a Tweet after the briefing. "Hope he gets some well- deserved rest.")

"I can't allow what has been said to remain [unchallenged]," Power said. The "Russian regime has a remarkable trust in a government that sends rockets at- and bombs its own population," she added. "It's a regime that holds its population trapped. It is a regime that denied having chemical weapons and turns out to have huge stockpiles."

The heated exchange played out at a meeting where the U.N. chemical weapons expert, Ake Sellstrom, presented the 15-nation council with a final report on the use of chemical weapons. Sellstrom concluded that chemical weapons had been used in at least five incidents. But he told reporters last week that he did not believe that he had amassed sufficient evidence to prove before a court of law that either party in the conflict had used chemical weapons.

Power said that a U.N. investigation into chemical weapons use in Al Ghouta -- while withholding blame, provided a trove of evidence -- including findings that the trajectory of the rockets used in the strike suggested they came from a government camp. And that, in her estimation, "makes use of chemical weapons by the opposition in al Ghouta not possible."

Power also cast blame on President Bashar al-Assad's government for another chemical weapons attack on March 19 in the town of Khan Al Assal where the underlying evidence of government responsibility is much thinner.

Syria and Russia both contend that opposition forces carried out a chemical strike against Syrian military forces in the town of Khan Al Assal. A U.N. investigation confirmed that nerve agent had poisoned Syrian troops in at least three incidents, including Khan Al Assal.

Power insisted that there is no evidence of opposition use in Khan Al Assal or any other place.

"I repeat that the U.S. assessed that the opposition has not used chemical weapons," she said. "The Khan al Assal case might be a case of friendly fire: Syrian planes thought they were bombing opposition positions while it was a government held line."

"If we did find out that the opposition used chemical weapons, we would denounce just as vocally," she added.

Britain's U.N. envoy also challenged Moscow's case, saying it was aimed at sowing confusion rather than identifying those responsible for chemical warfare. "Russia tries to do the "giant squid" technique; put as much ink as possible into the war to make it muddy," Britain's U.N. ambassador Mark Lyall Grant told the Security Council, according to a diplomat who witnessed the exchange.

STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

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