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U.S. pushes U.N. for Ghouta truce as Trump considers Syria options

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A day after the United Nations Security Council demanded a ceasefire across Syria in February, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley - angry that Russia delayed the vote for several days and sceptical the Syrian government would comply - spoke with President Donald Trump.

United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley addresses the U.N. Security Council on Syria during a meeting of the Council at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Segar

“There’s a lot of decisions to be made now,” said Haley during a visit to Central America days after the unanimous Feb. 24 Security Council vote. “We all throw options out on the table and then the president will decide.”

On Monday, Haley told the Security Council that if the 15-member body failed to act on Syria then Washington “remains prepared to act if we must,” just as it did in April last year when the United States bombed a Syrian government air base it said was used to launch a deadly chemical weapons attack.

The United States is asking the council to adopt a new resolution demanding an immediate 30-day ceasefire in Damascus and rebel-held eastern Ghouta, where Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, backed by Russia and Iran, say they are targeting “terrorist” groups shelling the capital.

The assault on Ghouta is one of the heaviest in Syria’s war. Eastern Ghouta has been besieged for years after many of its residents joined the initial protests against Assad’s rule in 2011. The death toll in the seven-year-long war has passed half a million people, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“We have to decide what action are we going to take on everything else that’s happening,” said Haley during her Central America trip. “Whether it’s how the Syrian regime is using chlorine, and whether it’s the ceasefire not being handled or the humanitarian access.”

The Syrian government has denied using chemical weapons.

It was not immediately clear when the U.S. resolution would be put to a vote. But during her Central America trip, Haley made clear she has no desire to play diplomatic games with Russia. A resolution needs nine votes in favour and no vetoes by Russia, China, the United States, France or Britain to pass.

Haley, a member of Trump’s cabinet, said the council is “so obsessed with unity and that’s great and it’s pretty and it’s nice, but if unity doesn’t accomplish anything it’s not good for anybody.”

“You’re making everybody happy except for the people of Syria. And those are the people we’re supposed to be fighting for,” she said.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the council on Monday that since the adoption of the February ceasefire resolution, which was drafted by Sweden and Kuwait, “there has been no cessation of hostilities.”

Haley, who had engagements in Chicago in the days leading up to the Feb. 24 ceasefire vote, was furious at what she described as “Russian stalling.” Sweden and Kuwait delayed calling a vote for several days in a successful bid to win Russia’s support by dampening language on when a truce would start.

Russia has said the Security Council could not impose a ceasefire without a deal between the warring parties.

The council is also considering a separate U.S. push for the creation of a new inquiry into who is to blame for chemical weapons attacks in Syria. Russia blocked the renewal of a previous international investigation in November.

“Syria is Russia’s. They took ownership of it, they need to fix it and now they’re whining because they can’t,” Haley said during her Central America trip. “Iran is controlling Assad and Russia is their puppet covering for them at the Security Council.”

Russia is worried that Trump is planning further military action against the Syrian government.

“We are very much concerned that the alleged chemical use might be a pretext for something bigger and much more dangerous,” Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told Reuters.

Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Grant McCool