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Syria Crisis Likely to Overshadow UN General Assembly

  • Margaret Besheer

On Tuesday, world leaders will meet in New York for their annual gathering at the United Nations General Assembly. The crisis in Syria is likely to dominate this year’s meetings.

When most people think of the U.N. General Assembly, they think of the annual debate, where there is a parade of world leaders to the green marble podium in the great hall talking about what is of deepest concern to their country.

And while this year attention is likely to focus on the speeches of countries involved in the Arab Spring and the eurozone financial crisis, much of the real action will happen away from the podium at private meetings between leaders and at side events attended by ministers and sometimes even presidents and prime ministers.

African crises figure prominently on this list, with separate high-level meetings scheduled to discuss hunger and violence in the Sahel, the disputes between Sudan and South Sudan, and Somalia’s transition.

But likely to cast a long, dark shadow over the proceedings will be the year-and-half-old conflict in Syria, where more than 20,000 people have died and millions more are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters that Syria would be his top priority.

“I am going to have bilateral meetings with more than 120 leaders this time. Syria will be on top of my agenda, I believe Syria will be top of every leader’s mind. So we have to address this issue most urgently,” Ban said.

The U.N. Security Council has been polarized over Syria, with Russia and China using their veto three times to block council action. In spite of the paralysis, the council will have a meeting with ministers from the Arab League on Wednesday to discuss their relationship, which will also provide a forum to discuss Syria.

But Century Foundation senior fellow Jeffrey Laurenti says it is unlikely the council will be able to break its months-long impasse and do anything meaningful to end the Syrian crisis.

“The reason is that the Russians and the Chinese, and other states -- the Pakistanis too -- have deep reservations about trying to coerce a sovereign, recognized government into giving up power, and the Americans and the west Europeans and many of the Arab states clustered around Saudi Arabia and now Egypt, believe that [President Bashar] Assad has to go,” Laurenti said.

Another potential crisis world powers will consider is Iran’s nuclear program. The United States and other nations fear Iran wants a nuclear bomb, but Tehran says its program is peaceful. A recent report from the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran has not done enough to allay its concerns that Tehran's nuclear pursuits do not have a military dimension.

On Thursday, political directors from the permanent five U.N. Security Council powers - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- plus Germany, will meet on the margins of the General Assembly to discuss how to move forward on Iran. Jeffrey Laurenti says the message of that meeting will be international unity to increase pressure on Tehran.

“I think that the P5+1 … are going to reinforce the message of their unity on this and on the conditions that Iran has to meet, that they will spell out,” Laurenti said.

But beyond world crises, one growing success story is likely to garner a lot of attention -- the transition of Burma, also known as Myanmar -- to democracy and the presence this year of its President Thein Sein at the annual debate.

But perhaps stealing some of his limelight is a U.S. tour by National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Freed from years of house arrest in November 2010, she visited the United Nations on Friday to meet with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Burmese staffers. Aung San Suu Kyi was herself a staff member here from 1969 to 1971.