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Syria's civil war tops UN Assembly agenda

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon speaks at United

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon speaks at United Nations headquarters during the 68th session of the U.N. General Assembly. (Sept. 17, 2013) Credit: AP

UNITED NATIONS -- How to rein in Syria's civil war -- and to seek and destroy the chemical weapons being used during the 21/2year-old conflict -- is foremost on the agenda for heads of state and government at this year's UN General Assembly.

But other delicate diplomatic concerns are almost as pressing during the 68th assembly of leaders of 193 member states, such as resolving the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the nuclear ambitions of Iran, old and fresh skirmishes in sub-Saharan Africa and ushering the anti-poverty Millennium Development Goals into their final stretch.

"Syria is without doubt the biggest crisis facing the international community, and is likely to figure prominently in the speeches and meetings during the general debate segment, and rightly so," said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

But Iran also could share center stage as new Iranian President Hasan Rouhani has made recent overtures to the West and will speak at the UN on Tuesday afternoon.

President Barack Obama will give his address Tuesday morning, fueling the speculation that the two leaders will meet. The White House hasn't ruled out the possibility of a direct exchange, though spokesman Jay Carney said no meeting is scheduled.

Obama has long said he would be open to discussions with his Iranian counterparts if Tehran shows it is serious about curbing its nuclear program. Iran has repeatedly said it wants sanctions eased as a first step to make any significant progress in nuclear negotiations.

The general debate, which begins Tuesday, mainly consists of world leaders taking turns at the podium delivering their takes on the world's problems and what to do about them. Some use the platform to grandstand and boast of their achievements as if they are campaigning to their constituents back home.

Last year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu challenged Obama to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, famously drawing a "red line" on a cartoonish diagram designed to show how close Iran had come to producing a nuclear warhead.

Other leaders use the opportunity to take shots at rivals, as the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez did when chiding President George W. Bush, and as former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had done in scolding "the West" for several years of his presidency.

But the general assembly is also supposed to serve as a forum to set the agenda for the work of the United Nations and its many bodies throughout the year.


A humanitarian crisis

This General Assembly arrives as the world's attention remains mostly on Syria's civil war, which UN officials have described as the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet because it has generated millions of internally displaced persons and refugees while killing more than 100,000 people.

The world's nations heaved a collective sigh of relief when Russia and the United States hammered out a deal to remove chemical weapons from Syria after nerve gas was released in rebel-controlled areas in the suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21. The images of children writhing on the ground or in hospital beds, their pupils narrowed to a pinpoint, shocked the world and made resolving the Syrian crisis all the more urgent, officials said.

And the flurry of diplomacy that, for now, thwarted an attack threatened by Obama may have buoyed the prospects for the success of an international conference to be held in Geneva to resolve the civil war politically.

The political cooperation, Ban said, may spark a breakthrough in the deadlocked Security Council, which has not reached enough agreement on what to do about Syria to pass any resolutions, despite the urgency.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will also figure largely in the speeches at the General Debate, as it has been several years since the Palestinian Authority, with great fanfare, applied to become a full member state at the United Nations. Though it fell short of that goal, it achieved the lesser "nonmember observer status" after a General Assembly vote last November.


Peace talks lose steam

The peace talks that would ultimately establish a two-state solution to that long-running conflict have lost some steam after crises exploded in Syria and Egypt, taxing both UN and U.S. officials working on Middle East issues.

In Egypt, a military coup ousted the democratically elected President Muhammad Morsi earlier this year, just a year after he was elected. The streets of Cairo and the famous Tahrir Square -- where protesters successfully called for the ouster of Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring in 2011 -- have erupted in violence anew as Morsi supporters demonstrate and clash with those who wanted him removed.

And in parts of Africa, such as some areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Central African Republic, lawlessness reigns as rebel groups seek to overthrow the government and terrorize the population. Sudan and South Sudan, which voted to become independent of the government of President Omar Bashir in Khartoum in 2011, maintain an uneasy peace with occasional flare-ups at disputed areas.

All the while, the United Nations has tracked the progress of the Millennium Development Goals, a long-term, multifaceted campaign to drastically cut poverty, disease, infant mortality and hunger by 2015. Ban said that the so-called MDGs should remain on world leaders' radar during the General Assembly and beyond.

"We will focus on how to accelerate achievement of the Millennium Development Goals as the 2015 deadline approaches," he said.

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