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ISIL, Ebola and Ukraine: What’s on the agenda at the UN General Assembly

Crisis in Iraq and Syria likely to dominate, with the chill between Russia and the West serving as a tense backdrop

This week world leaders at the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York will grapple with crises unforeseen the last time the assembly met. Among them, the increasing threat of the Ebola outbreak and the rapid growth of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group in swaths of Syria and Iraq. Those issues may overshadow ongoing nuclear talks with Iran and a worsening humanitarian emergency in Syria, where a civil war has raged for over three years. Here are some of the matters expected to be addressed during the annual summit in New York City.

ISIL threat alarms West

President Barack Obama will chair a meeting of the Security Council focused on the international effort to prevent foreign fighters from making their way to Syria and Iraq to join ISIL. Intelligence services estimate that 12,000 people from at least 81 countries have traveled to join extremist groups in Syria and Iraq. Many nations are concerned over the potential threat radicalized nationals represent if they return home. The U.S. has circulated a draft resolution to the Security Council demanding countries “prevent and surpress’ the recruitment and travel of foreign fighters aiming to join extremist groups like ISIL, according to Reuters.

Ebola crisis in West Africa erodes security

In only the second time the U.N. Security Council has focused on a public health emergency — the first was HIV/AIDS — a unanimous resolution was adopted on Sept. 18 to create a new health mission to tackle the spread of Ebola, a deadly virus the council called a "threat to peace and security." U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for $1 billion in aid for the affected West African nations over the next six months. The resolution also called for help transporting health workers to West Africa, where Ebola has killed at least 2,630 people, as well as lifting border and travel restrictions on Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. More than 5,300 cases have been identified, with half of those recorded in the last three weeks. Officials have warned that up to 20,000 people could be infected with Ebola if efforts to curb the outbreak aren’t intensified. On Thursday a team of eight health workers and officials were found dead in Guinea, apparently killed by villagers, according to the government, adding to growing concerns about the security situation.

Syria’s war still burning

The plight of the more than 3 million refugees who have fled Syria during the three-year-long war — as well as those still living in the ravaged country — have been recently overshadowed by the focus on combating ISIL. On Monday, however, politicians attending the General Assembly are slated to hold a high-level meeting on Syria’s humanitarian crisis. Syria’s neighboring countries, including Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, are overwhelmed by the flood of displaced. Many Syrians have at this point been refugees for years, living in limbo and unable to find jobs or educate their children. There is no end to the war in sight, with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad dominating rebel forces. Congress on Thursday cleared the way for the U.S. to train and equip unnamed moderate Syrian rebels to fight ISIL. Some say focusing on fighting ISIL could weaken the rebels in their fight against Assad, while others argue it could give them the training and weapons they need to take on Assad’s forces. But whatever the eventual outcome of Syria’s war, the humanitarian crisis is sure to last far into the future.

Russia-Ukraine conflict sends a chill through the summit

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which has resulted in the greatest tensions between Moscow and the West since the Cold War, serves as a tense backdrop to this year's General Assembly. The U.S. on Thursday promised Ukraine $46 million in security assistance to help quell the Russian-backed separatist movement in eastern Ukraine, a battle that has endured since Moscow annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March. The U.S. and Europe have repeatedly tightened economic sanctions on Russia in response to what the West says is its support of the rebels — an allegation Moscow denies — and Russia has ramped up sanctions on Europe and the U.S. in response. Ukraine, meanwhile, has repeatedly implored NATO to make Kiev a full member of the alliance, a request NATO is unlikely to fulfill, since Western nations don’t want to be obliged to take military action in Ukraine’s defense. Eastern European leaders, however, fearful of Russia’s new assertiveness in its erstwhile sphere of influence, will continue sounding the alarm.

Iran nuclear talks continue

The U.S. has kept Iran out of summits discussing the campaign against ISIL, despite the Iranians’ active combat role against the extremists on the ground in Iraq. The ISIL threat has nonetheless dominated U.S.-Iranian discussions of late, although it has been kept separate from the nuclear discussion. The search for an agreement to limit the scope of Iran’s nuclear work in exchange for sanctions relief remains stalled on two key issues: the scale of Iran’s uranium enrichment program and the duration of any restrictions on that program accepted by Iran. Discussions are expected to occur on the sidelines of the General Assembly meetings, but no agreement is expected before the current deadline of Nov. 24.

A call for action on climate change

The week will begin with the global summit on climate change, and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has implored member nations to contribute generously to a worldwide fund designed to help poorer countries cope with the impact of climate change and to invest in alternate energy schemes that would help curb greenhouse gas emissions and tackle global warming. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has committed $1 billion over four years, but other countries haven’t been as forthcoming. Worldwide protests on Sunday drew hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets to pressure global leaders to cease their collective evasion of responsibility on the issue.

Millennium development goals deadline looms

It’s a mixed report card for the eight development goals set nearly 15 years ago to alleviate global poverty, stop the spread of HIV/AIDS and provide universal primary education by the end of 2015. Improving sanitation has been one of the biggest failures, according to some reports, but the U.N. claims success in two areas: halving the number of people living in extreme poverty, and making clean drinking water accessible to more than 2 billion people. U.N. diplomats are expected to set new targets, called Sustainable Development Goals, to be achieved over the next 15 years. Some, however, have already criticized the new goals as too vague or financially prohibitive.

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