* Stern message at the U.N. General Assembly
* Warns U.S. will take direct action against extremist
By Jeff Mason and Steve Holland
UNITED NATIONS, Sept 24 U.S. President Barack
Obama urged the United Nations on Tuesday to back tough
consequences for Syria if it refuses to give up chemical weapons
and urged Russia and Iran to drop their backing of Syrian
President Bashar al-Assad.
Speaking to the U.N. General Assembly, an annual gathering
of world leaders, Obama laid out U.S. priorities for the
volatile Middle East and North Africa. He stressed that the
United States wants diplomatic outcomes to festering disputes,
but does not rule out the use of military force or direct action
against extremist threats.
Obama stepped back from launching unilateral military action
against Syria early this month, setting in motion a diplomatic
effort that led to Russian assistance in persuading Syria to
agree to give up its chemical weapons after a poison gas attack
on Aug. 21 that U.S. officials say killed 1,429 people.
With Syria's promise not yet fulfilled, Obama's challenge at
the United Nations was to persuade world leaders to join in
applying pressure on Syria with a U.N. Security Council
resolution that includes tough consequences should Assad not
surrender his chemical weapons stockpiles in a verifiable way.
"The Syrian government took a first step by giving an
accounting of its stockpiles. Now, there must be a strong
Security Council resolution to verify that the Assad regime is
keeping its commitments, and there must be consequences if they
fail to do so," said Obama.
The worry from the U.S. side is that Russia might veto any
U.N. resolution that contains an explicit threat of military
force against Syria.
Prospects for an agreement between Russia and the West on a
draft resolution may be improving, with Western powers giving up
on what U.N. diplomats call a "trigger" clause for automatic
punitive measures in the event of Syrian non-compliance.
Obama said if Syria ultimately surrenders its chemical
weapons, that should energize diplomatic efforts to persuade
Assad to give up power after 2-1/2 years of civil war in which
more than 110,000 people have been killed.
Obama had an explicit message for Assad's two biggest
backers, Iran and Russia: The notion that Syria can return to a
pre-war status quo "is a fantasy."
"It's time for Russia and Iran to realize that insisting on
Assad's rule will lead directly to the outcome they fear - an
increasingly violent space for extremists to operate," he said.
He also seemed to specifically reject Russian President
Vladimir Putin's recent criticism of Americans' belief of
"American exceptionalism," a view that Obama has repeated, as
have other U.S. presidents, to justify U.S. intervention abroad.
"Some may disagree, but I believe that America is
exceptional - in part because we have shown a willingness,
through the sacrifice of blood and treasure, to stand up not
only for our own narrow self-interest, but for the interests of
all," he said.
Obama announced the United States will provide an additional
$339 million in humanitarian aid to ease the Syrian refugee
crisis, including $161 million for people inside Syria and the
rest for surrounding countries.
In his 43-minute speech, Obama tried to boost prospects for
Middle East peace as the United States seeks to nurture direct
negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Obama, who will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
later on Tuesday and next week will sit down with Israeli Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said the time is ripe for the
international community to get behind the pursuit of peace.
Amid concern about the rise of violence in Africa after an
attack on a mall in Nairobi, Kenya by the Somali militant group
al-Shabab, Obama said the United States must reserve the right
to defend its core interests.
"We will dismantle terrorist networks that threaten our
people. Wherever possible, we will build the capacity of our
partners, respect the sovereignty of nations, and work to
address the root causes of terror," he said. "But when it's
necessary to defend the United States against terrorist attacks,
we will take direct action."