Russia bears responsibility for recent reported chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday.
The alleged chlorine gas attacks in January affected 20 civilians, many of them children, in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta, where government-allied forces have starved and pummelled around 400,000 civilians in a three-plus year siege.
"Whoever conducted the attacks, Russia ultimately bears responsibility for the victims in East Ghouta and countless other Syrians targeted with chemical weapons, since Russia became involved in Syria," Mr Tillerson told reporters in Paris.
"There is simply no denying that Russia, by shielding its Syrian ally, has breached its commitments to the US as a framework guarantor."
The top US diplomat’s harsh rebuke will further strain relations between the two superpowers inside Syria. Moscow backs the Syrian government headed by President Bashar al-Assad and the US seeks his removal.
Mr Tillerson demanded Russia stop vetoing from related votes in the UN Security Council, where it has torpedoed successive draft resolutions designed to increase humanitarian access and limit fighting.
Russia and China have also blocked Western-backed efforts to impose sanctions on Damascus over the use of chemical weapons.
Mr Tillerson’s comments came at a Paris meeting for diplomats from 29 countries pushing for sanctions.
Participants will share information to compile a list of individuals implicated in the use of chemical weapons in Syria and beyond, in order to facilitate asset freezes, entry bans, and criminal proceedings at the national level.
There have been at least 130 separate chemical attacks in Syria since 2012, according to French estimates. In 2013, the regime admitted it had chemical weapons stockpiles, but said it was keen to cooperate with the UN and become a signatory of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Elsewhere in Syria, the risk of another front opening in the nearly seven-year-long conflict rose considerably as columns of Turkish tanks and armoured personnel carriers were positioned along the Turkish-Syrian border.
A spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Washington of “taking worrying steps to legitimise this organisation and make it lasting in the region”.
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“It is absolutely not possible for this to be accepted,” he said.
In recent days, intense clashes in Afrin and aerial assaults have opened a new front in Syria’s civil war and raised the spectre of another round of high-casualty urban warfare.
On Tuesday Kurdish leaders responded to the long-telegraphed Turkish invasion by calling upon all Kurds, even civilians, to take up arms.
"We announce a general mobilisation and we invite all children of our people to defend Afrin," the Kurdish enclave’s autonomous administration said in a statement.
Critics say it is a provocative move that puts more strain on a complex web of alliances at play in Afrin, one of three autonomous cantons controlled by the SDF in Syria’s northeast.
“The YPG is aware it’s impossible for them to win militarily. The best they can hope for is what I would describe as a heroistic defence.
"Civilian participation gives them a score in a propaganda war, and is cost-effective, because it means they can save their best fighters and units,” said Ahmet Kasim, Associate Professor at Istanbul’s Kadirhas University.
With the call for Afrin’s civilians to take up arms, the conflict risks being framed as a Kurdish fight for survival, with the Kurds successfully drawing Turkish forces into a messy urban war.
With Russian and Syrian government forces and associated militias active in the area, as well as anti-government groups like the Free Syrian Army, it is a crowded battlefield where superpowers with clashing interests have come dangerously close to confrontation.
“Things can easily escalate in such circumstances,” said Mr Kasim. “Turkey is playing a high-stakes game.”