United Nations, Feb 17 : The U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly on Thursday for a resolution backing an Arab League plan calling for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down and strongly condemning human rights violations by his regime.
The vote in the 193-member world body on the Arab-sponsored resolution was 137-12 with 17 abstentions. Several countries complained immediately afterward that they were unable to vote due to problems with the U.N.'s voting machine.
Russia and China, who vetoed a similar resolution in the Security Council, voted against the General Assembly measure along with North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba and others who heeded Syria's appeal to vote "no."
Supporters were hoping for a high "yes" vote to deliver a strong message to Assad to hand power to his vice-president and immediately stop the bloody crackdown that has killed over 5,400 people. The measure had over 70 co-sponsors and won support from more than two-thirds of the General Assembly.
"Today, the U.N. General Assembly sent a clear message of the people of Syria: the world is with you," U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said in a statement. President Assad "has never been more isolated. A rapid transition to democracy in Syria has garnered the resounding support of the international community. Change must now come."
Saudi Arabia's U.N. Ambassador Abdallah Y. Al-Mouallimi called it "a victory for the Syria people," the U.N. and the Arab League.
"It is a message that the international community is sending loud and clear that the struggle of the Syrian people is not unheard and is not unresponded to," he said, and it reaffirms that the Security Council's failure to adopt a resolution on Syria earlier this month "does not reflect the will and the desire of the international community."
There are no vetoes in the General Assembly and while their resolutions are not legally binding, they do reflect world opinion on major issues.
The transfer of power to Syria's vice-president is part of the Arab League plan for a transitional government which was adopted on January 22. It calls for the establishment of a national unity government within two months to prepare for internationally supervised parliamentary and presidential elections.
Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari warned that the resolution will send a message to extremists that "violence and deliberate sabotage" are acceptable and will lead "to more chaos and more crisis."
After the vote, a bitter Ja'afari told the assembly: "The Arab Trojan horse has been unmasked today." He called the 22-nation Arab League, from which Syria has been suspended, "broken both politically and morally." He also accused the co-sponsors of using the Arab League to internationalize the situation in Syria.
Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov called the assembly resolution "unbalanced," saying "it directs all the demands at the government, and says nothing about the opposition," according to Russian news agencies.
The resolution condemns "all violence, irrespective of where it comes from, and calls upon all parties in Syria, including armed groups, to immediately stop all violence or reprisals."
But Arab countries on Tuesday rejected amendments proposed by Russia, which has been one of Syria's strongest backers since the Cold War when the president's late father, Hafez Assad, led the country.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said his country voted against the resolution because its proposed amendments were ignored.
One called on "all sections of the Syrian opposition to dissociate themselves from armed groups engaged in acts of violence" and urged countries with influence to prevent continued violence by such groups. The other demanded that the withdrawal of all Syrian armed forces from cities and towns - which is called for in the Arab League plan - take place "in conjunction with the end of attacks by armed groups against state institutions and quarters of cities and towns."
Arab sponsors couldn't accept these amendments because they sought to equate the Assad regime's crackdown on civilian protesters with the opposition that rose up to confront the violent attacks, U.N. diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the discussions were private.
Many countries expressed regret that more effort wasn't made to try to incorporate Russia's amendments and obtain a broader consensus.
Churkin stressed that the key to resolving the Syrian crisis is "through an inclusive political process led by the Syrians themselves."
China's deputy ambassador Wang Min reiterated Beijing's opposition to "armed intervention or forcing a so-called regime change in Syria." But he supported Arab calls for an immediate end to the violence.
It was the second time in two months that the General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning human rights violations in Syria and demanding an end to the violence.
The latest resolution makes no specific reference to the Arab League's call on Sunday for the Security Council to authorize a joint Arab-U.N. peacekeeping force for Syria, or to the possibility of a joint observer mission going to Syria.
It makes five demands - that the Syrian government stop all violence, release all those detained during the unrest, withdraw all armed forces from cities and towns, guarantee peaceful demonstrations, and allow unhindered access for Arab League monitors and international media.
It also asks U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to consider the appointment of a special envoy to Syria, possibly jointly with the Arab League.
Egypt's deputy ambassador Osama Abdelkhalek, speaking for the Arab group, stressed that Thursday's resolution "is just the start."
He appealed to the Syrian parties, government and international community "to work hand in hand, support the Arab efforts, so that we would be able, within very few weeks, to find one last solution, settlement, to the very serious situation in Syria."