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Downbeat U.N. General Assembly opens amid Syria stalemate

The world's annual diplomatic gab-fest -- the U.N. General Assembly debate -- opens on Manhattan's East River tomorrow against a backdrop of deepening civil war in Syria, nuclear-tipped confrontation between Israel and Iran, and nagging questions about whether a recent wave of anti-American protests was a blip or portends darker diplomatic days ahead for the United States and its Western partners.

The U.N. session will offer world leaders an opportunity to take stock of the health of the democratic movement, known as the Arab Spring, that has swept through North Africa and the Middle East over the past year and a half, toppling dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and dealing an existential challenge to the Assad dynasty's decades-long rule in Syria.

For the first time, the region's old guard, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will cross paths in the U.N. corridors with the region's new leaders, including Egypt's Mohamed Morsy and Libya's Mohammed Magarief.

As world leaders from 193 countries converged on midtown, swelling the East Side's most luxurious hotels, the U.N. and Arab League representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, offered a downbeat assessment of the prospects for peace in Syria, while the Iranian leader took swipes at Israel in a series of interviews with American editors and journalists, accusing the Jewish state of trying to bully America into a war with Iran. Israel's U.N. delegations, meanwhile, staged a walk-out from a high-level U.N. meeting on the rule of law after Ahmadinejad denounced the Zionist state.

In a rare snub to visiting dignitaries, President Barack Obama will avoid conducting the customary bilateral meetings with foreign counterparts, appearing only briefly at U.N. headquarters to deliver his address to the General Assembly. From there, he'll head crosstown, where he will speak at the Clinton Global Initiative conference hosted by former President Bill Clinton. He will, however, host a dinner for visiting leaders at the Waldorf Astoria hotel on Tuesday night.

"The president just in recent weeks has had intensive consultations with leaders in the region, with the leaders of Turkey, of Egypt, of Israel, of Yemen, of Libya, of Afghanistan, and that process will continue," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "It is a simple fact that when you're president of the United States, your responsibility as commander-in-chief never ends and you are constantly engaged in matters of foreign affairs and national security. And that's what this president is doing."

The Iranian leader sought to set the tone for this year's debate, launching his final appearance in New York as Iran's president with a series of interviews with American columnists, editors, and reporters. At a breakfast this morning, Ahmadinejad said that Israel, which he refers to only as "Zionists," was bullying the Americans into a clash with Iran. "Is it the Zionists who must tell the United States government what to do, such as form a red line on Iran's nuclear issue and the United States government must make such vital decision under the influence of the Zionists?"

Israel's U.N. ambassador, Ron Prosor, meanwhile, walked out of a high-level U.N. meeting promoting the rule of law. "Ahmadinejad heads a state that is the most systematic violator of international law and the world's greatest sponsor of terrorism," he said in a statement after the walkout. "It is shameful, disgraceful, and absurd that his voice was part of today's U.N. discussion on the rule of law."

Netanyahu, who is scheduled to speak on Thursday, is expected to deliver a combative speech denouncing Iran's nuclear activities, pressing the U.N. membership to confront the regime before it obtains a nuclear weapon. 

Behind the nuclear standoff, there were competing narratives over the state of America's relations with the Middle East's new leaders.

The new Libyan leader's attendance at the U.N. underscored the prospects for improving America's standing in the region. And Magarief, the head of Libya's national congress, today struck a conciliatory note, apologizing directly to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday for his government's failure to halt the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate, which left four Americans dead, including the U.S. ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. "What happened on 11th of September towards these U.S. citizens does not express in any way the conscience of the Libyan people, their aspirations, their hopes or their sentiments towards the American people," Magarief told Clinton today, according to Reuters. "Of course we ... express our great readiness to cooperate with the U.S. government in order to cooperate in the investigation and bring those perpetrators to justice."

Morsy, meanwhile, was not interested in offering comfort to America, which he suggested bore the burden of improving its poor standing in the region. Egypt's Islamist leader defended his government's tepid first response to the protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo, telling the New York Times that "we took our time" to avoid a violent reaction by the protesters, but later dealt "decisively" with them. "We can never condone this violence but we need to deal with the situation wisely,' Morsy said.

The Egyptian leader also told the New York Times that the United States had earned its bad reputation in the Middle East by backing generations of military dictatorships and Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. "Successive American administrations essentially purchased with American taxpayer money the dislike, if not the hatred, of the peoples of the region."

But the issue weighing most heavily over the U.N. membership was Syria, where nearly a year's worth of Arab League and U.N.-based diplomacy has failed to halt a brutal government crackdown on anti-regime protesters. The crisis in Syria, which began as a peaceful popular call for change, has deteriorated into all-out civil war, with thousands dead, mostly civilians killed by government forces, and the emergence of extremist elements seeking to take advantage of the chaos.

In advance of the General Assembly debate, U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi provided the U.N. Security Council with a downbeat assessment of peace prospects in Syria, saying that he would be powerless to avert worsening civil and sectarian strife as long as the U.N.'s biggest powers, including the United States and Russia, remained divided.

The veteran U.N. trouble-shooter also sent a strong message to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, saying that his promise to bring government-sponsored reforms would not be enough to stem the spreading violence in Syria. "I think there is no disagreement that the situation is extremely bad and getting worse," Brahimi told reporters after the meeting. "I refuse to believe that reasonable people do not see that you cannot go backward; you cannot go back to the Syria of the past. I think I told everybody in Damascus and elsewhere that reform is not enough. What is needed is change."

Despite the grim report, Brahimi offered his first sliver of hope, saying that while there are "no prospects" for diplomatic progress in the immediate future, his travel to the region had given him cause to believe "we will find an opening in the not too distant future."

After the meeting, Brahimi told reporters that the situation in Syria "is extremely difficult. There is a stalemate; there is no prospect for today or tomorrow to move forward." But he also raised a hopeful note over the prospects for future progress, saying that a recent visit to the region, including a meeting with Assad, had convinced him that "I think we will find and opening in the not too distant future."

Brahimi's remarks, which followed the former Algerian diplomat's first briefing to the Security Council on Syria, reflected a growing consensus among U.N. officials and some Arab leaders that the only hope of easing the crisis would require some sort of agreement between Russia and the West on a process for political transition in Syria. "If I do not represent the entire council I am nothing," Brahimi told reporters. "I need to be seen to represent a united council and a united League of Arab States and I think the Security Council understands that perfectly well."

Brahimi said he would use the occasion of the General Assembly debate to consult with key regional and international leaders in New York before returning to the region. For the time being, Brahimi said he had no fixed peace plan for Syria, but that "I do have a few ideas" that he intends to discuss with key foreign powers in New York this week.

The U.N. Security Council has remained at a stalemate on Syria since July, when Russia and China cast vetoes -- their third on Syria -- on a resolution that outlined a blueprint for the establishment of a national transition government, which threatened sanctions against Damascus if it failed to halt its attacks on residential areas.

Behind closed doors, Brahimi told the 15-nation Security Council that he saw few signs that either Assad or the fragmented armed opposition are currently prepared to engage in substantive peace talks, according to council diplomat present.

"On the side of the government, the aim is still to keep, or return to, the old Syria, even if much is said about dialogue and reform," Brahimi told the council. "Popular demand for change, not reforms, is hardly recognized by the government. The crisis is seen mainly as a foreign conspiracy engineered from abroad."

The Syrian government, Brahimi told the Security Council, continues to dismiss the role of popular unrest in fueling anti-government sentiment, arguing that Damascus is the victim of a foreign conspiracy, and that its troops are up against as many as 5,000 foreign fighters. The armed opposition, meanwhile, maintains the current rebellion is the result of four decades of state-terror against the people.

"They say there is no turning back," Brahimi told the council. "Indeed, it bears repeating that the solution to Syria's problems demands a clean break with the past."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch 

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