UNITED NATIONS — President Obama used his speech to the United Nations to jab at Russian President Vladimir Putin over Syria, reflecting their discord over how the Security Council will ensure that President Bashar al-Assad gets rid of his chemical weapons.
Obama’s sharp words in remarks Tuesday to world leaders reflected tensions with the Russian leader without mentioning him by name. Obama said “it’s an insult to human reason” to suggest — as Putin has said — that Syrian rebels rather than government forces conducted the Aug. 21 nerve-agent attack near Damascus that the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people.
The sniping has been mutual, with Putin this month accusing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry of lying about the extent of al-Qaida involvement with the rebels. Underlying the leaders’ comments are diverging views on UN-authorized military force and on Assad’s fate.
Efforts to draft a Security Council resolution on elimination of Syria’s toxic arsenal hit headwinds from Assad’s ally Russia, which opposes U.S., French and British demands to include the threat of force if Assad violates his pledge to surrender his chemical weapons.
“There must be a strong Security Council resolution to verify that the Assad regime is keeping its commitments,” Obama said in his speech to the UN General Assembly in New York. “And there must be consequences if they fail to do so. If we cannot agree even on this, then it will show that the United Nations is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws.”
Hours later, Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, attempted to resolve differences that have slowed action on a resolution. They had agreed to meet in New York as part of their Sept. 14 Geneva accord that averted U.S. military strikes by compelling Assad to accept a disarmament plan.
Lavrov said on Sept. 22 that Russia rejected a U.S. and European proposal to include enforcement provisions under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which allows for various measures from sanctions to the use of force. They want to “drive through a resolution based on force” that blames Assad for everything, Lavrov said in an interview with Russia’s Channel One, published on the Foreign Ministry’s website.
Although two U.S. officials characterized the talks Tuesday as very constructive, they wouldn’t say whether the differences had been fully resolved. Kerry and Lavrov discussed expectations for Syria and how to respond if the agreement isn’t being met, said one of the officials, who didn’t provide details.
The meeting lasted for 90 minutes, twice the time planned, as the two ministers and supporting teams worked on the resolution’s language, according to the officials, who asked not to be identified because the talks are private. Lavrov was flanked by four men and Kerry was flanked by four women, including Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland.
The U.S. and its European allies, who are working together to craft a resolution, aim to have the Security Council vote within days after receiving an implementation plan from the executive council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, known as OPCW, the Netherlands-based body that implements the Chemical Weapons Convention barring such arms.
The Security Council measure would mandate Syrian compliance with the OPCW, establish provisions in the event of Syrian violations, and waive some restrictions to permit removal of chemical weapons breaching the convention.
In his address, Obama touched on another area of disagreement with Russia — whether Assad has a place in a post- conflict Syria. Obama termed it a “fantasy” to think that Syria can “somehow return to a pre-war status quo” with a role for a “leader who has slaughtered his citizens and gassed children to death.”
It’s time “for Russia and Iran to realize that insisting on Assad’s role” plays into the hand of extremists, he said.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened the session of the 193-member General Assembly, calling Syria the “biggest peace and security challenge in the world.” He urged the Security Council to adopt an “enforceable” resolution on Syrian chemical weapons, while saying that “we can hardly be satisfied with destroying chemical weapons while the wider war is still destroying Syria.”
U.S. and European nations say the Security Council resolution must include an enforcement provision under Chapter 7 because of doubts that Assad will fully comply. The Syrian leader, who has provided the OPCW with an initial inventory, still must allow inspectors starting next month to verify, secure and then eliminate the weapons under a U.S.-Russia timeline that runs to June 30.
French President Francois Hollande told the assembly that the resolution “must have coercion” under Chapter 7 and call for bringing to justice those responsible for using chemical weapons in Syria.
An agreement on a resolution with strong enforcement language would “send a powerful message that the use of chemical weapons has no place in the 21st century and that this body means what it says,” Obama said.
In the first day of general debate at the UN, the Syrian civil war figured prominently. Some leaders vented anger at the Security Council’s paralysis as a result of Russia’s protection of the Syrian regime. Russia has used its veto power to block all council attempts to impose sanctions on Assad’s government since the conflict began with peaceful peaceful protests in March 2011.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul said “it is a disgrace” that a divided Security Council hasn’t acted to end the fighting due to “political differences, balance-of-power politics and geopolitical considerations.” More than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict, and Gul said 100,000 more may die if the fighting continues another year.
With Turkey backing the rebels in their efforts to topple Assad, Gul alluded to Russia’s Syrian ties that go back four decades to Assad’s father. Any recurrence of the “proxy wars of the Cold War era” will plunge Syria into further chaos, he said.
The emir of Qatar, a covert supplier of arms to the rebels, called for Security Council reform, saying the council is “a major obstacle to preserving international peace and security and to the punishment of war criminals and perpetrators of crimes against humanity.”
“We all know that the responsibility for failure to impose the political settlement we all prefer for Syria is due basically to the inability of the Security Council to take the required decision to stop the bloodshed and the continued intransigence of the Syrian regime,” said Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who assumed leadership of the Persian Gulf state from his father in June.
Syria is a “global humanitarian and security disaster,” said King Abdullah of Jordan, a neighbor whose economy and resources are being strained by more than 500,000 Syria refugees. That number could double next year if the conflict continues, he said, calling for peace negotiations to be put on a “fast track.”
Turkey’s Gul and Qatar’s Al Thani said that the U.S.- Russian negotiated chemical weapons accord shouldn’t distract from the thousands being killed with conventional arms.
— With assistance from Gregory Viscusi in Paris and Sangwon Yoon at the United Nations.