Russia questioned on Tuesday a report by the United Nations and a global chemical weapons watchdog that blamed Syrian government forces for two chlorine gas attacks, saying the UN Security Council could not use the conclusions to impose sanctions.
A year-long UN and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inquiry, unanimously authorized by the 15-member Security Council, also found that Islamic State militants used sulfur mustard gas.
The UN Security Council began talks on Tuesday on how to respond to the inquiry. When asked if he thought the report was enough to impose sanctions on Syria, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said: "Frankly, I don't, but we continue to analyze the report."
"There are two cases that they suggest are the fault of the Syrian side; we have very serious questions," he told reporters after the council met behind closed doors to discuss the issue.
The report set the stage for a Security Council showdown between the five veto-wielding powers, pitting Russia and China against the United States, Britain and France.
"The sorts of things we will be looking at are the imposition of a sanctions regime and some form of accountability within international legal mechanisms," said British UN Ambassador Matthew Rycroft on his way into the meeting.
Syria agreed to destroy its chemical weapons in 2013 under a deal brokered by Moscow and Washington. The Security Council backed that deal with a resolution that said in the event of non-compliance, "including unauthorized transfer of chemical weapons, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone" in Syria, it would impose measures under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter.
Chapter 7 deals with sanctions and authorization of military force by the Security Council. The body would need to adopt another resolution to impose targeted sanctions – a travel ban and asset freeze – on people or entities linked to the attacks.
"It is incumbent on the council to act swiftly to show that when we put that Joint Investigative Mechanism in place we were serious about there being meaningful accountability," US Ambassador Samantha Power said on her way into the meeting.
"I can't specify or get ahead of where the council's going to be," she said.
Russia, a close Syrian ally, and China have previously protected the Syrian government from council action by blocking several resolutions, including a bid to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.
"We need a resolution and we need a resolution with teeth," said French UN Ambassador Francois Delattre on Tuesday.