UNITED NATIONS — President Barack Obama on Tuesday challenged the U.N. Security Council to hold Syria accountable if it fails to live up to pledges to dismantle its chemical weapons stockpiles. He said the United Nations' credibility and reputation is at stake.
"If we cannot agree even on this," Obama said, "then it will show that the United Nations is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws."
The United States and Russia earlier this month brokered an agreement to secure and destroy Syria's chemical weapons, thus averting a threatened U.S. military strike to deter and degrade Syrian President Bashar Assad's ability to use the banned arms. Despite the agreement, Washington and Moscow remain at odds over possible consequences should Syria fail to comply.
"We believe that as a starting point the international community must enforce the ban in international weapons," Obama said in his address to the U.N. General Assembly.
The U.S.-Russia agreement came as Obama was pushing Congress to approve a military strike against Syria for a chemical weapons attack last month on civilians outside Damascus, which the Obama administration contends was carried out by Assad's regime. With Congress appearing all but certain to withhold its approval, Obama did an abrupt turnaround and asked Secretary of State John Kerry to try a last-ditch diplomatic approach with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
The subsequent diplomatic steps placed the threat of force on hold.
Kerry and Lavrov were meeting at the United Nations later Tuesday to discuss how to enshrine the agreement in a binding Security Council resolution. They are to meet again at the U.N. on Friday with Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League special envoy for Syria, to push ahead with plans for a new international conference that would help form a Syrian transitional government.
Despite the chemical weapons deal, the Russians have challenged the administration's claims of Assad's culpability. Assad has blamed rebel forces for the attack.
Obama aggressively pushed back against those claims in his U.N. speech.
"It's an insult to human reason and to the legitimacy of this institution to suggest that anyone other than the regime carried out this attack," the president said.
Obama also said that while the international community has recognized the stakes involved in the more than 2-year-old civil war, "our response has not matched the scale of the challenge."
Obama also announced that the U.S. will provide $339 million in additional humanitarian aid to refugees and countries affected by the Syrian civil war, bringing the total American aid devoted to that crisis to nearly $1.4 billion. The White House said the aid will include $161 million spent inside Syria for medical care, shelter and sanitation projects, with the remainder going to help Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt.
Obama reiterated his stand that Assad cannot continue to lead Syria, but said he would not use U.S. military force to depose him.
"That is for the Syrian people to decide," he said. "Nevertheless, a leader who slaughtered his citizens and gassed children to death cannot regain the legitimacy to lead a badly fractured country."
He called on Assad allies to stop supporting his regime.
"The notion that Syria can somehow return to a pre-war status quo is a fantasy," he said. "It's time for Russia and Iran to realize that insisting on Assad's role will lead directly to the outcome that they fear: an increasingly violent space for extremists to operate."