Obama’s Evolution on Syria at the United Nations

From a passing comment to chemical weapons, a look at the president’s last five U.N. speeches.

President Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday.
National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
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Matt Vasilogambros
Sept. 24, 2013, 7:14 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama on Tues­day called on the United Na­tions Se­cur­ity Coun­cil to pass a res­ol­u­tion that re­sponds strongly to Syr­ia if the coun­try does not co­oper­ate on hand­ing over chem­ic­al weapons. It was a firm ad­dress with a pre­dict­able mes­sage to the Gen­er­al As­sembly on this dif­fi­cult is­sue.

But Syr­ia wasn’t al­ways the corner­stone of Obama’s speeches at the United Na­tions dur­ing his ten­ure as pres­id­ent.

In his first ad­dress to the Gen­er­al As­sembly in 2009, he spoke of Syr­ia as one play­er in the search for broad­er peace in the re­gion. The civil war wouldn’t start for an­oth­er year.

As we pur­sue this goal, we will also pur­sue peace between Is­rael and Le­ban­on, Is­rael and Syr­ia, and a broad­er peace between Is­rael and its many neigh­bors. In pur­suit of that goal, we will de­vel­op re­gion­al ini­ti­at­ives with mul­ti­lat­er­al par­ti­cip­a­tion, along­side bi­lat­er­al ne­go­ti­ations.

While Syr­ia is men­tioned just once that year, it’s not men­tioned at all a year later in 2010. Just a few months later, vi­ol­ence would erupt in that coun­try and res­ult in the civil war between the As­sad re­gime and op­pos­i­tion forces.

However, in the early months of the con­flict, the only re­sponse by the U.S. was hard sanc­tions on the As­sad re­gime and a gen­er­al call for in­ter­na­tion­al ac­tion. Obama men­tions Syr­ia in his 2011 ad­dress, but only lim­itedly.

Already, the United States has im­posed strong sanc­tions on Syr­ia’s lead­ers. We sup­por­ted a trans­fer of power that is re­spons­ive to the Syr­i­an people. And many of our al­lies have joined in this ef­fort. But for the sake of Syr­ia — and the peace and se­cur­ity of the world — we must speak with one voice. There’s no ex­cuse for in­ac­tion. Now is the time for the United Na­tions Se­cur­ity Coun­cil to sanc­tion the Syr­i­an re­gime, and to stand with the Syr­i­an people.

In the fol­low­ing year, sev­er­al act­iv­ists and hawk­ish law­makers, such as Sen. John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz., called on the pres­id­ent to sup­port the mod­er­ate op­pos­i­tion with mil­it­ary aid in or­der to even­tu­ally oust As­sad. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion at­temp­ted to work through the U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil, but Syr­ia’s al­lies, in­clud­ing Rus­sia, blocked ac­tion. In 2012, the Obama again calls for the As­sad re­gime to come to an end.

To­geth­er, we must stand with those Syr­i­ans who be­lieve in a dif­fer­ent vis­ion, a Syr­ia that is united and in­clus­ive, where chil­dren don’t need to fear their own gov­ern­ment and all Syr­i­ans have a say in how they’re gov­erned — Sun­nis and Alaw­ites, Kur­ds and Chris­ti­ans. That’s what Amer­ica stands for. That’s is the out­come that we will work for, with sanc­tions and con­sequences for those who per­se­cute and as­sist­ance and sup­port for those who work for this com­mon good.

On Tues­day, Obama not only re­cog­nized the fail­ures of the U.S. and oth­ers in the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity — “Our re­sponse has not matched the scale of the chal­lenge” — but he also fo­cused heav­ily on Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al weapons, its al­leged at­tack on Aug. 21, and an ef­fort on be­half of Rus­sia, the U.S. and Syr­ia to rid that na­tion of its weapons of mass de­struc­tion. It was the first time that chem­ic­al weapons were cen­ter stage for Obama dur­ing this an­nu­al ad­dress.

Agree­ment on chem­ic­al weapons should en­er­gize a lar­ger dip­lo­mat­ic ef­fort to reach a polit­ic­al set­tle­ment with­in Syr­ia. I do not be­lieve that mil­it­ary ac­tion by those with­in Syr­ia or by ex­tern­al powers can achieve last­ing peace. Nor do I be­lieve that Amer­ica or any na­tion should de­term­ine who will lead Syr­ia. That is for the Syr­i­an people to de­cide. Nev­er­the­less, a lead­er who slaughtered his cit­izens and gassed chil­dren to death can­not re­gain the le­git­im­acy to lead a badly frac­tured coun­try. The no­tion that Syr­ia can re­turn to a pre­war status quo is a fantasy.

The ten­sion between the U.S. and Rus­sia was also ap­par­ent in the pres­id­ent’s ad­dress, as Obama evoked the Cold War on the is­sue of Syr­ia. While Obama al­luded to Rus­sia’s ob­struc­tion­ism in pre­vi­ous ad­dresses, this was the most dir­ect shot at Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin.

We are com­mit­ted to work­ing this polit­ic­al trek and as we pur­sue a set­tle­ment, let’s re­mem­ber this is not a zero sum­mit en­deavor. We’re no longer in a Cold War. There is no great game to be won, nor does Amer­ica have any in­terest in Syr­ia bey­ond the well-be­ing of its people, the sta­bil­ity of its neigh­bors, the elim­in­a­tion of chem­ic­al weapons and en­sur­ing that it does not be­come a safe haven for ter­ror­ists. I wel­come the in­flu­ence of all na­tions that can help bring about a peace­ful res­ol­u­tion of Syr­ia’s civil war.

The pres­id­ent said that the re­cent deal between the Rus­si­ans and Amer­ic­ans could bol­ster peace talks. Maybe the peace that Obama has called for in his last three ad­dresses might be real­ized in 2014. Or the vi­ol­ence could just be an­oth­er foot­note of his speech.

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