Haley rips into Russia as Security Council weighs resolution on Syrian chemical attack

Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley tore into Russia on Wednesday over Syrian President Bashar Assad's suspected use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people the day before, as the U.N. Security Council took up a resolution condemning the attack. 

"Russia has shielded Assad from U.N. sanctions. If Russia has the influence in Syria that it claims it has, we need to see them use it," Haley said at an emergency meeting of the council. "We need to see them put an end to these horrific acts. How many more children have to die before Russia cares."

The abruptly called meeting followed reports on Tuesday of a suspected chemical weapons attack in northern Syria that killed at least 70 civilians, many of whom were children. Activists and eyewitnesses said that the strike was conducted by the government of the Syrian president.

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At the heart of the meeting was a resolution introduced by the United Kingdom, France and the U.S. condemning the attack and calling for an investigation into the incident. 

Haley was not alone in condemning Russia’s support for the Assad regime. The U.K.’s and France’s representatives took direct aim at Russia for enabling Assad, and urged the country to back the proposed resolution.

“History will judge all of us in how we respond to these unforgettable and unforgivable images of the innocent,” U.K. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said. “How long are we going to sit here and pretend that actions in these chambers have no consequences?”

Russia, a close ally of Assad, quickly signaled its opposition to the resolution.

The Security Council is made up of 15 states, including five permanent members — the U.S., France, Britain, China and Russia. Under council rules, all five permanent members must agree for a resolution to pass. Any one veto would kill it.

Haley forcefully backed the proposed resolution.

"We don’t yet know everything about yesterday’s attack. But there are many things we do know," she said. "We know that yesterday’s attacks bears all the hallmarks of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. We know that Assad has used these weapons against the Syrian people before."

Syria has for more than six years been locked in a brutal civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven millions more from their homes.

Russia has long supported the Assad regime, though it says its chief goal in the country is to fight terrorist groups. 

Haley’s comments followed a bitter diatribe by Russian U.N. representative Vladimir Safronkov, in which he sought to blame the continued use of chemical agents in Syria as a result of the Obama administration’s 2012 establishment of a “red line” on the use of such weapons. 

At the time, former President Obama said such attacks would create a context for U.S. military intervention, though he ultimately backed away from that position.

“Crossing those red lines was supposed to lead to military intervention in the Syrian conflict,” Safronkov said, echoing a talking point used Tuesday by President Trump. “That decision served as a starting point for future provocations by terrorists and extremist structures with the use of chemical weapons.” 

“They sought to discredit the official Damascus regime and to create a pretext for the use of military force against a sovereign state,” he added.

Before his election, Trump repeatedly urged Obama not to intervene militarily in the Syrian conflict. After news of the chemical attack broke, he blamed his predecessor's "red line" for the strike.

“These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution,” Trump said.

The U.S. has long held the position that Assad must leave power in order for peace to be achieved in Syria. But the Trump administration has softened the country’s tone on that policy. 

During a new conference in Turkey last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signaled that the U.S. would not try to oust the authoritarian leader, saying that “the longer term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.”

Haley echoed that sentiment shortly after Tillerson’s remarks, saying that ending the Assad regime was no longer a U.S. priority.

"You pick and choose your battles and when we're looking at this, it's about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out," she said.

— Updated at 5:06 p.m.