By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley warned on Wednesday during a U.N. Security Council meeting that countries could be "compelled to act" individually if the world body does not take collective action after a deadly poison gas attack in Syria.
Western countries blamed President Bashar al-Assad's armed forces for the attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in a rebel-held area of northern Syria hit by government air strikes. Syria's government denied responsibility. [L5N1HD1OV]
The council is considering a draft resolution condemning the attack but Russia opposes it. British U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said negotiations were continuing on the text but a vote was unlikely on Wednesday.
"Assad, Russia and Iran have no interest in peace," Haley told the 15-member Security Council. "The illegitimate Syrian government, led by a man with no conscience, has committed untold atrocities against his people.
"When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action," said Haley. She did not signal what sort of action could be taken.
The gas attack killed at least 70 people, many of them children.
In February, Syrian ally Russia, backed by China, cast its seventh veto to protect Assad's government from council action, blocking a bid by Western powers to impose sanctions over accusations of chemical weapons attacks.
Deputy Russian U.N. Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov told the council that former U.S. President Barack Obama's 2012 threat of military action if a "red line" was crossed and chemical weapons were used in Syria had provoked such attacks.
"That decision served as a starting point for future provocations by terrorists and extremist structures with the use of chemical weapons, they sought to discredit the official Damascus regime and to create a pretext for the use of military force against a sovereign state," Safronkov said.
U.S. President Donald Trump faulted Obama on Tuesday for failing to enforce the red line. Obama's spokesman declined to comment.
"We're talking about war crimes," French U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre told reporters.
"We urge Russia to exert much stronger pressure to the regime ... Frankly, we also need an America that is seriously committed to a solution in Syria and that puts all its weight behind it," he said.
'WHAT IS YOUR PLAN?'
Speaking in the council, Rycroft asked Russia: "What is your plan? What is your plan to stop these horrific senseless attacks? We had a plan and we had the support and you rejected it to protect Assad."
Safronkov responded by saying Russia has more than one plan, but the first one is to fight terrorism.
Rycroft said the Russian and Chinese vetoes in February sent Assad a message of encouragement and Tuesday's attack was "the consequence."
An investigation by the U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) found Syrian government forces were responsible for three chlorine gas attacks in 2014 and 2015 and that Islamic State militants had used mustard gas.
The United States, Britain and France have proposed a Security Council resolution to condemn the latest chemical weapons attack, and push Syria to provide an international inquiry with flight plans and logs for Tuesday, the names of all helicopter squadron commanders and access to air bases.
Assad had agreed in 2013 to give up his chemical arsenal under a deal brokered by Russia and the United States.
U.N. High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Kim Won-soo told the Security Council on Wednesday that all Syria's declared chemical materials and equipment have been removed or destroyed.
"For the past three years the OPCW has worked with the Syrian Arab Republic to assess and verify their declaration. A number of outstanding issues related to Syria's declaration remain open," he told the council.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Alistair Bell and Bill Trott)