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At U.N., Attention Divided Between Airstrikes And Climate Chage


President Obama is in New York to address the UN on climate change today, but his decision to make good on threats to expand his air war against militants of the so-called Islamic State or ISIS into Syria dominated the day.

Last night the U.S. began attacking targets around the ISIS headquarters of Raqqah in Syria. The American military was joined in the attack by forces of five Arab countries. The president met with representatives of those countries in New York this afternoon.

NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now. And Scott, is it a coincidence that this attack came as world leaders are gathered in New York for the UN General Assembly?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Robert, the administration says these attack were not timed with today's UN meeting in mind. In fact, the president gave the green light last Thursday - one day after he was briefed on the military plan at the headquarters of U.S. Central Command in Tampa. After that the timing was really left up to the military leader.

The U.S. also launched a separate attack overnight in western Syria - this one aimed at a different militant group made up of former al-Qaida members. And administration officials say that group, unlike ISIS, was plotting an imminent attack on Western targets in the U.S. or Europe.

SIEGEL: Scott, both the president and military leaders have been at pains to say that this was a joint attack carried out by American forces and also air forces from the region. Explain why it's so important to the administration to point out that other countries were taking part.

HORSLEY: Well, you'll remember, Robert, when the president spoke to the American people about his plans to take the fight to ISIS. He said the United States would lead a coalition. And speaking to reporters at the White House this morning before he left for New York, Obama stressed that there were partners from five Arab countries flying along with the U.S. military last night - Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The strength of this coalition makes it clear to the world that this is not America's fight alone. Above all, the people and governments of the Middle East are rejecting ISIL and standing up for the peace and security that the people of the region and the world deserve.

HORSLEY: And of course, the U.S. is seeking additional partners. And the president will talk about that when he addresses the UN General Assembly tomorrow.

SIEGEL: And now, President Obama will lead a special meeting of the UN Security Council tomorrow focused on the problem of foreign fighters. What's expected to come of that meeting?

HORSLEY: Well, there's a great deal of concern that groups like ISIS are attracting large numbers of international participants including some from the West. And while for now they're focused on battles in the Middle East, the concern is that eventually they might bring the skills they've learned and their Western passports home to wreak havoc in the U.S. or Europe. So the security council is looking for ways to discourage that, both in preventing these terror-tourists from getting radicalized in the first place and making it harder for them to travel to places like Syria to join forces with ISIS.

SIEGEL: Well, now back to today's scheduled topic - that was the president's speech on climate change of the UN this afternoon. Tell us more about what he had to say.

HORSLEY: Well, for all the preoccupation of this UN meeting with immediate threats like ISIS or the Ebola virus, Obama says the biggest and most dramatic threat - the one that will affect our children and grandchildren is the change in climate. This summit is a precursor to an international meeting next year that's designed to limit the rise in global temperatures to two degrees Celsius. And Obama says to make that happen, no country can stand on the sideline.


OBAMA: We can only succeed in combating climate change if we are joined in this effort by every nation, developed and developing alike. Nobody gets a pass.

HORSLEY: Obama said as the number one economy and the number two carbon polluter, the U.S. has special responsibility. And he admitted that for any country, tackling that challenge is not going to be without controversy.

SIEGEL: OK, that's NPR's Scott Horsley traveling with the president in New York. Scott, thanks.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.