Attempt to stave off a a military confrontation in Syria failed in the UN security council on Tuesday evening, with Russia and western allies unable to compromise on a concerted international response to the use of chemical weapons.
Each side voted against the other’s proposals for setting up a body dedicated to investigating repeated poison gas use in Syria.
The US delegation said it had done “everything possible” to accommodate Russian views and that the abortive council session marked a “decisive moment”.
Russia said the issue was being used by the US and its allies as a “pretext” to attack Syria.
The US, UK and France continued to make preparations for military action intended to punish the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which they say is responsible for the latest chemical weapons attack, on the Damascus suburb of Douma on 7 April, killing more than 45 people.
The rising tensions and the dramatic risks of a clash between the major powers was evident in the eastern Mediterranean, where Russian warplanes overflew US and French naval vessels armed with cruise missiles.
Inspectors from the watchdog the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) were planning to travel to Syria after receiving an invitation from the Assad regime, but it was unclear whether they would be allowed to reach Douma, and whether their presence there would delay US-led military action.
Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron and Theresa May held phone consultations on Tuesday. Macron told reporters in Paris later that a decision would be made in the coming days following “exchanges of technical and strategic information with our partners, in particular Britain and America”. He said that if airstrikes came, they would target Syrian government chemical facilities.
Macron made the remarks at a Paris press conference alongside the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who offered his country’s support for US-led military action. “If our alliance with our partners requires it, we will be present,” the Saudi leader said, wrapping up a three-day visit to Paris.
A Downing Street statement suggested some UK caution by continuing to state the chemical weapons attack had not yet been confirmed.
The US and its European allies have accused the Assad regime of being behind the attack in the rebel-held area of Douma, but Russian officials have claimed that no trace of chemical weapons could be found at the site, and argued that the attack either never took place or was staged by rebels to provide a pretext for western military intervention.
After Trump hinted heavily on Monday that he was on the verge of ordering airstrikes, the US-Russian struggle shifted back once more to the UN security council. Both sides promoted rival resolutions, but compromise was never expected between entrenched positions.
Russia vetoed a US resolution creating a new independent investigative mechanism for chemical weapons attacks in Syria, arguing that it would become a propaganda tool of the west.
The Russian envoy, Vassily Nebenzia, said the resolution had been designed to fail. “They hope the decision will not pass,” Nebenzai told the council chamber. “This is what they want in order to justify the use of force against Syria.
“If you take the decision to carry out an illegal military adventure and we do hope that you will come to your senses – then you will have to bear responsibility for it yourselves.”
Only Bolivia voted with Russia, and China abstained. The 12 other members supported the US initiative.
A Russian counter-proposal, establishing an investigative mechanism but leaving final decisions on whom to blame for chemical weapons to the security council, failed to win enough votes in the council.
France described the Russian proposal as a “smokescreen” intended to give cover to the Damascus regime.
“Allowing people to use chemical weapons allows the genie of weapons of mass destruction out of the bottle, and weapons of mass destruction pose an existential threat to all us,” the French envoy, François Delattre, said.
After the vote, Karen Pierce, the UK ambassador to the UN, said: “Russia’s credibility as a member of the council is now in question.” She added: “We will not stand idly by and watch Russia continue to undermine global norms which have ensured all our security, including Russia’s, for decades. As a [permanent council] member, the United Kingdom will stand up for international peace and security. It is our moral duty.”
By convention, British prime ministers cannot send UK forces into combat action without an explicit vote of MPs. May is aware David Cameron was humiliated when he lost a Commons vote to take military action in 2013 to punish Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Her leadership might not survive a similar defeat.
In anticipation of airstrikes, the Syrian regime is reported to be moving its aircraft to the Russian base at Latakia, presumably in the expectation that they would be safe from destruction there. The US may be intent on grounding as much of the Syrian air force as possible, but will not wish to destroy Russian planes.
The US navy has less firepower in the eastern Mediterranean than it did when Trump ordered punitive missile strikes for chemical weapons use in April last year.
Now there is only one guided missile destroyer, armed with the Tomahawk cruise missiles used in April – the USS Donald Cook, which left the Cypriot port of Larnaca on Monday.
Its twin, the USS Porter, which took part in the last Tomahawk attack, is on a port visit to Cherbourg, France. Another missile cruiser of the same class, the USS Ross, has just completed exercises with the Royal Navy and left Plymouth on Sunday.
It would take a few days to come within range. The USS Harry Truman aircraft carrier and its battle group are due to leave Virginia on Wednesday, reportedly bound for the Mediterranean, but it would take several days to reach the Syrian coast.
However, the USS Cook is being accompanied in the area by the French frigate Aquitaine, armed with cruise missiles, which was reported in the French press to have been buzzed by low-flying Russian warplanes over the weekend.>