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September 21, 2013

US Expected to Press Syria at UN General Assembly

by Zlatica Hoke

World leaders will convene Tuesday in New York for the United Nations General Assembly.  The U.S. government on Friday unveiled its goals for the upcoming session. 

U.S. officials say Syria, the Middle East and North Africa will be high on the U.S. agenda at the General Assembly. 

State Department official Dean Pittman, the acting assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, says the United States will urge fast elimination of Syria's chemical weapons so that efforts can start to end the civil war there. 

"And so what we'd like to see very quickly after we get this initial phase of this effort to rid Syria of its chemical weapons is that we'll be able to move on the political front and Geneva-2, and bring the parties together and sit down, and based on what we've already agreed in Geneva-1 to build a process - to put a process in place - that will allow us to establish a real political settlement because that's ultimately what's going to resolve this situation in Syria," he said.

Pittman said the United States has been disappointed with the U.N. Security Council, where veto-holding members Russia and China have blocked every effort to issue a resolution on Syria.  But he said the United States has been able to accomplish significant goals in the embattled country through other U.N. groups.   

"Just for a couple of examples:  the World Food Program has been able through their assistance program, and our contributions and the contributions of other U.N. members - has been able to provide assistance to 4 million people at risk, and that includes 1.3 million children," he said. "If you look at what the International Organization for Migration has been able to do - it has been able to help 1.5 million migrants and internally displaced and refugees, and if you look at what we've been able to do with the Human Rights Council as well.  There, we've been able to establish a commission of inquiry that has been doing really serious work on exposing some of the atrocities in Syria.  And we've been able to establish a special rapporteur who has been looking at the situation in Syria as well."

U.S. President Barack Obama will address the General Assembly during its first day Tuesday.  Pittman said the speech will focus on the Middle East, Syria and North Africa.  But he said the president also wants to address the importance of supporting the development of civil society, especially in the countries where it has been suppressed.

While in New York, President Obama will have bilateral meetings with the Nigerian, Lebanese and Palestinian presidents.  Responding to speculation in the media, U.S. officials said there are no plans for a meeting between Mr. Obama and Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani.

A State Department spokeswoman, Marie Harf, said the United States is encouraged by friendly overtures from Iran, but that Washington is looking for action regarding Tehran's controversial nuclear program.  

"We've said from the beginning that what we are looking for aren't words, they are actions.  That's what really matters: that we are open to talking directly with Iranians if and when they are willing to do so.  But we need to see a substantive response to our proposals on their nuclear program as well," she said.

On Monday night, President Obama will host a reception for world leaders in New York.  The U.N. General Assembly continues until October 4.