U.N. General Assembly begins under Syrian storm clouds

Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speak during a press conference at the Hotel Intercontinental on September 12, 2013 in Geneva, Switzerland. The leaders met to discuss chemical weapons in Syria in working towards assisting a U.N. Security Council resolution. Harold Cunningham/Getty Images

United Nations The U.N. General Assembly officially opened Tuesday, but the event which will draw 196 speakers to address the annual General Debate next week will almost certainly be overshadowed by the debate playing out this week among U.N. Security Council members over how to rid Syria of chemical weapons.

As the 89 heads of state gather in New York, eyes will be focused on Secretary of State John Kerry as he meets his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of the Assembly to iron out the final details of how to secure and dismantle Syria's 1,000 tons of chemical weapons in the midst of a raging war, and verify that it has been done.

A U.N. inspectors' report released Monday was pointed to by the U.S., U.K. and France as confirmation of their own intelligence that Syrian President Bashar Assad's government was behind an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs. Russia made it clear on Tuesday, however, that President Vladimir Putin's government isn't yet convinced of Assad's culpability, and they intend to fight pressure from the U.S. and its European allies to include a use-of-force clause in the Security Council resolution on Syria.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was to meeting privately with Kerry and Lavrov on Sept. 28, on the sidelines of the General Assembly, to try and push the two sides toward an agreement.

Russia has thus far blocked any punitive measures by the U.N. against its ally Syria by wielding its veto power as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council.

Secretary-General Ban has lamented the deadlock in the Council as a "failure" of the U.N., and while the focus of the General Assembly is always on world leaders, at this year's 68th session the attention will be squarely on the 15 members of the Security Council, to see whether they can stem their snowballing lack of credibility at resolving the world's worst conflicts.

President Obama will address the General Debate on its opening day, Sept. 24, as will Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani. The Russian and Chinese Presidents have bowed out this year, however, and there will obviously be no repeats of the fiery speeches delivered by the now-ailing Fidel Castro, the late Hugo Chavez or the murdered Muammar Qaddafi.

The General Assembly will hear from Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who last year captured world attention by putting a picture of a nuclear bomb on display to illustrate his "red line" on Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will also address the Assembly.

High-level meetings will take place on other important issues during the General Debate, which concludes on Oct. 1, including nuclear disarmament, the Middle East peace process, international migration, poaching and illegal wildlife trafficking, Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and development goals for persons with disabilities, among others.

There is still movement on the schedule of speakers, and the final program is not set in stone: Netanyahu was originally set to speak on Sept. 30, within an hour of the Syrian Deputy Prime Minister, but Israel switched to Oct. 1, and Netanyahu is reportedly first traveling to Washington, D.C. to meet with Mr. Obama.

  • Pamela Falk

    Pamela Falk is CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst and an international lawyer, based at the United Nations.

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