War in Syria, mounting tensions over Iran’s nuclear drive and anti-Western protests across the Muslim world will cast a shadow over the annual UN gathering of world leaders starting tomorrow.
Words of warning and defiance are expected when US President Barack Obama, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu join more than 120 heads of state and government at the UN General Assembly.
Because of international divisions over the 18-month-old Syria conflict, the UN is holding no formal meeting on the civil war.
However, Obama and Western leaders are expected to call for action in their speeches. The US president is one of the first speakers tomorrow after the event is opened by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Ban and UN-Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi agreed in talks on Saturday that the conflict is a “steadily increasing threat to regional peace and security,” a UN spokesman said.
The Syria campaign will be pressed outside the General Assembly. Brahimi will brief the UN Security Council today on his talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Syria will also dominate a UN Security Council ministerial debate on links with the Arab League on Wednesday, the EU is set to launch a new appeal for humanitarian funds and a Friends of Syria ministerial meeting is planned for Friday.
Diplomatic wounds over Syria are not close to healing. Neither Russia nor China, which have three times vetoed Security Council resolutions on Syria, will be represented by a senior leader in New York. Al-Assad is expected to send his foreign minister.
“Everyone will be thinking about Syria, talking about Syria, but there will be no decision and no major progress,” said one senior UN diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Stewart Patrick, an expert on international institutions and global governance for the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, said that Syria will be one of two “lightning rod” issues at the summit along with the Iran nuclear showdown.
Ahmadinejad is in New York for probably his last appearance at the General Assembly.
This time there is feverish speculation that Israel is planning a military strike on bunkered Iranian nuclear facilities that Tehran insists are for peaceful purposes, but Western nations say hide attempts to develop a nuclear bomb.
Netanyahu and Obama will not meet in New York and this has heightened speculation of a rift between the two. However, the US and its allies have stepped up warnings to Iran that time is running out for a negotiated solution to the showdown.
Netanyahu will take the UN stage two slots after Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas. Last year, Abbas took center stage with his emotional bid for full membership of the UN, which was thwarted by the US.
Abbas is this time expected to announce that the Palestinians will seek elevated observer status, a move that neither the US nor Israel can block, but that is only a second prize.