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Obama To Give Final Speech To U.N. General Assembly, Syria A Topic


So here's a question. What does President Obama's administration really want in Syria now? It's a tough question, since the U.S. wants to beat extremist groups but also overturn the government that fights them. We have one answer this morning from Obama's U.N. ambassador, Samantha Power.


SAMANTHA POWER: Getting the regime to stop attacking its own people, focusing our efforts on targeting terrorists and making sure that the starving and surrendering techniques and - and that Russia helps make them end. They have a lot of leverage. They handed a lifeline to the Syrian regime this time last year, and they should cash that in for peace.

INSKEEP: That's Samantha Power outlining U.S. goals as she spoke with NPR's Michele Kelemen, at the same time that world leaders are gathering at the United Nations in New York for their annual meeting. President Obama will address that meeting today. And Michele's on the line. Hi, Michele.


INSKEEP: What do you hear when you hear Samantha Power say the U.S. wants Russia to make the Syrian regime behave better?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, it was this time exactly last year at the U.N. General Assembly that Russia intervened in Syria on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And it really did turn the course of the - of the war. And now, the Obama administration, you know, is here trying to work with Russia, trying to get them to rein in Syrian forces. Secretary of State John Kerry, just over a week ago, announced a plan that he worked out with Russia. It calls for a cease-fire, humanitarian access and the potential for the U.S. and Russian militaries to actually work together to fight terrorists in Syria. It all really seems in doubt, though, at the moment.

INSKEEP: Yeah, I'm remembering a year ago the U.S. was saying, well, Russia has gotten itself involved in a quagmire. They'll have trouble getting out. They're going to be desperate to end the war. But Russia seems to be in a strong position, and here's the United States trying to get Russian help.

KELEMEN: That's right. I mean, they did say it was a quagmire. And I asked Samantha Power about that. And she said that, you know, they do think that the Russians have an interest in resolving this. They don't want this to go on forever. It gets harder and harder to fight terrorism, not easier, as long as this war goes on because the extremists thrive in a situation like this.

INSKEEP: John Kerry did work out this partial cease-fire - lasted seven days, sort of. It's over now. What now?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, he's trying to revive it. He says it's not over yet. They want to continue it. He's been meeting with coalition partners who are all here in New York this week. He's talking with the Russians. But his top aides say it's really not clear whether they can salvage it. The U.S. blames Russia for not reining in Syrian forces, and Russia was furious over the weekend with the U.S.-led coalition strike that hit Syrian government forces instead of ISIS.

INSKEEP: Let's play a little more of your talk with Samantha Power, the U.N. ambassador. She spoke about what she thinks President Obama has learned while in office.


POWER: To deal with transnational threats, if you're the United States, you have to engage. And if you're other countries, you have to pull your weight.

INSKEEP: OK, so that's a lesson that Obama, I think, maybe would have said he came into office with, and he's tried to work through international coalitions. What does he plan to talk about as he speaks with world leaders today?

KELEMEN: Well, she says he did come in with that idea, and there have been some success stories. And those are the things he's going to talk about today. For instance, the U.S. led a successful international response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and it's helping to bring into force - possibly as early as this year - the Paris climate-change agreement. The other big issue on the agenda today is refugees and how to deal with the massive flow of refugees out of Syria and elsewhere.

INSKEEP: I just can't get used to this number - 65 million refugees and other people who are displaced around the world.

KELEMEN: Yeah, and that's - so what he's trying to do is bring countries together to make some commitments to help deal with this. But also what's interesting - he's bringing CEOs of major companies to pitch in to offer things like financial services to refugees, online education, training, help find jobs. You know, there just needs to be a lot more burden sharing. The U.S. has brought in about 10,000 Syrians in the past year, but millions have left, and they've overwhelmed countries in the region.

INSKEEP: Michele, always a pleasure talking with you.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.