NEW YORK — Samantha Power, the new US ambassador to the United Nations, strongly criticized Russia on Thursday in her first extensive public remarks about Syria, accusing the Kremlin of holding the Security Council hostage by blocking even modest efforts to condemn the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict.
Power said Russia’s actions signaled there was “no viable path forward in the Security Council.” Appearing before the UN press corps outside the Security Council, Power said the United States had been briefing other member states on its intelligence assessment about an attack in the Damascus suburbs Aug. 21. The assessment concluded that banned chemical munitions had been used and that the forces of President Bashar Assad were responsible.
The Obama administration says more than 1,400 civilians were killed in the strike, including more than 400 children.
Assad and President Vladimir Putin of Russia have ridiculed the US claims, asserting that it would be nonsensical for the Syrian government to use such weapons on its own citizens. The Syrian government has said that opposition forces seeking to topple him were responsible for the attack.
Putin has repeatedly warned that President Obama’s threat to carry out a missile attack on Syria to deter further use of chemical weapons would be a violation of the UN Charter, which says only the Security Council can authorize such action. As a permanent member of the council, Russia has said it would veto such a move.
Meanwhile, Obama has directed the Pentagon to develop an expanded list of potential targets in Syria to strike.
Obama, officials said, is now determined to put more emphasis on the “degrade” part of what the administration has said is the goal of a military strike — to “deter and degrade” Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons. That means expanding beyond the 50 or so major sites that were part of the original target list developed with French forces before Obama delayed action to seek congressional approval of his plan.
For the first time, the administration is talking about using American and French aircraft to conduct strikes on specific targets, in addition to ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles.
There is a renewed push
to get other NATO forces involved.
The strikes would be aimed not at the chemical stockpiles themselves — risking a potential catastrophe — but rather the military units that have stored and prepared the chemical weapons and carried out the attacks against Syrian rebels, as well as the headquarters overseeing the effort, and the rockets and artillery that have launched the attacks, military officials said Thursday.
Power, a longtime aide to Obama who began her tenure as the US ambassador last month as the latest crisis in the Syrian conflict was escalating, said the US intelligence findings “overwhelmingly point to one stark conclusion: The Assad regime perpetrated an attack.”
Power also castigated what she called the failure of the UN structure to deal with the Syrian conflict, which is now well into its third year. She said “the system devised in 1945 precisely to deal with events of this nature did not work.”
Power had particularly strong criticism for Russia, which she accused of using its veto power on the Security Council to protect “the prerogatives of Russia” despite international outrage.
She said “Russia continues to hold the council hostage,” and “what we have learned is that the Security Council the world needs to deal with this crisis is not the Security Council we have.”
Asked about Putin’s comments on what he has called the unconvincing case the United States has made regarding the Assad government’s culpability, Power was dismissive.
“We have seen nothing in Putin’s comments that would suggest there is a path forward in the Security Council,” she said.
Meanwhile, United Kingdom scientists have found new evidence that poison gas was used last month outside Damascus, British Prime Minister David Cameron said Thursday
In an interview with BBC television on Thursday, Cameron said that the evidence being examined by specialists at England’s Porton Down Laboratory ‘‘further shows the use of chemical weapons in that Damascus suburb.’’
The BBC’s account of the interview did not make clear whether the British tests had determined who was responsible for the chemical strike — a critical question facing world leaders, who are holding an economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.