NEW YORK – The UN convened its 70th general debate in New York on Monday, beginning a week of intense diplomacy with a series of speeches from leaders preoccupied with the fate and consequences of Syria’s intractable civil war.
The first day featured addresses from US President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, all fresh off their successful brokerage of an agreement in July meant to govern Tehran’s nuclear program.
They praised the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as a triumphant success for an international system that they understand from fundamentally different perspectives.
And yet, speaking with confidence that the nuclear deal provided a model for diplomacy in other spheres, all three leaders suggested compromise may now be possible on Syria, whose leader, President Bashar Assad, has sharply divided the international community.
Western powers consider Assad the central agitator in a war that has claimed 210,000 lives over five years of fighting.
But Russia and Iran support him. Both nations consider his government legitimate; his war a sovereign problem; and the forces fighting for his ouster ultimately destabilizing for the region, and their interests in it.
“Lasting stability can only take hold when the people of Syria forge an agreement to live together peacefully,” Obama said, speaking early Monday. “The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict.”
Insisting that Syria poses a test to international order, Obama called Assad a dictator “who slaughters tens of thousands of his own people.” The country cannot be put back together by the leader who tore it apart, he argued.
But Obama also said that practicality compels him to collaborate on the festering issue of Islamic State, a terrorist organization drawing tens of thousands of foreign fighters each year.
“That is not just a matter of one nation’s internal affairs,” he said. “It breeds human suffering on an order of magnitude that affects us all. “Yes, realism dictates that compromise will be required to end the fighting and ultimately stamp out ISIL,” he continued, using the acronym for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. “But realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader, and an inclusive government that recognizes there must be an end to this chaos so that the Syrian people can begin to rebuild.”
Putin agreed with Obama on one matter: The issue of Islamic State has become a global problem, requiring a global response. But he believes that a response requires the international community to coalesce behind Assad, while the US still insists that a future Syria has no role for the embattled president.
“We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad’s armed forces and Kurd militia are truly fighting Islamic State,” Putin said. Warning that foreign fighters recruited from Islamic State may one day return home to Europe and Russia, he added: “We cannot allow these criminals who tasted blood to return home.”
On the sidelines of the convention in New York, Putin met with Obama for the first time in two years. The two discussed Syria and the situation in Ukraine, White House officials said.
Iran’s president also alluded to his government’s continued support for the government in Damascus, while focusing his remarks more broadly on Tehran’s newfound relationship with diplomacy and compromise.
“We will not forget the past, but we do not wish to live in the past,” he said.
Calling the nuclear deal a “new and constructive way to recreate the international order,” Rouhani said Iran would soon be open for business as an export-oriented, stable economy, free of the yoke of “illegal” and “baseless” international sanctions.
“The gravest and most important threat to the world today is for terrorist organizations to become terrorist states,” he said, discussing Tehran’s efforts to combat Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. “We consider it unfortunate for national uprisings in our region to be deviated by terrorists and for the destiny of nations to be determined by arms and terrorism rather than ballot boxes.”
Iran, he said, has provided a critical role in fostering stable democratic institutions in Baghdad, ever since the American withdrawal of forces in 2011.
“We must not forget that the roots of today’s wars, destruction and terrorism, can be found in the occupation, invasion and military intervention of yesterday,” Rouhani told the assembly. “If we did not have the US military invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the US’s unwarranted support for the inhumane actions of the Zionist regime against the oppressed nation of Palestine, today, the terrorists would not have an excuse for the justification of their crimes.”
He also called for nuclear disarmament among declared nuclear weapons states, and for their help in constructing a “nuclear free Middle East,” specifically affirming Israel’s possession of nuclear arms.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened the debate
on Monday morning by congratulating the 70th General Assembly on the recent adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which he described as a “towering achievement.”
“Our mission is possible,” he said, “and our destination is in our sights: an end to extreme poverty by 2030; a life of peace and dignity for all.”
The war in Syria and Iraq was also at the center of the speech with Ban calling on countries to look beyond the borders of Syria for a solution to the conflict.
“Five countries in particular hold the key: The Russian Federation, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey,” he said. “But as long as one side will not compromise with the other, it is futile to expect change on the ground.
“We must also guard against the dangerous drift in the Middle East peace process,” Ban added, calling on Israelis and Palestinians to reengage in the effort. The secretary-general also urged nations to provide more assistance in finding a solution for the Syrian refugee crisis.
“People need emergency assistance, but what they want even more are lasting solutions,” he told the assembly. “They may appreciate a tent, but they deserve to go home.”
French President François Hollande and King Abdullah II of Jordan
also spoke on Monday, both also focusing on the Syrian conflict.
Abdullah made the fight against Islamic State the central theme of his speech, and said the future of a peaceful world is severely threatened by “the outlaws of Islam that operate globally today.”
“They target religious differences, hoping to kill cooperation and compassion among the billions of people, of all faiths and communities, who live side by side in our many countries,” he said. “These outlaw gangs use suspicion and ignorance to expand their own power.”
The king described the struggle to eradicate the terrorist group as “a third world war” and called for “global collective action on all fronts.”
Amid the recent tensions and riots on Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the monarch also said Jordan rejects threats to Jerusalem’s Muslim and Christian holy sites.
“The Hashemite custodianship of Jerusalem’s Muslim and Christian sites is a sacred duty,” he told the General Assembly. “We join Muslims and Christians everywhere in rejecting threats to the Arab character of this holy city.”