The 193-nation UN General Assembly ratcheted up the pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad on Thursday by overwhelmingly approving a resolution that endorses an Arab League plan calling for him to step aside.
The resolution, similar to one Russia and China vetoed in the Security Council on Feb. 4, received 137 votes in favor, 12 against and 17 abstentions, though three countries said their votes failed to register on the electronic board.
Russia and China were among those opposing the resolution, which was drafted by Saudi Arabia and submitted by Egypt on behalf of Arab states. Unlike in the Security Council, there are no vetoes in the General Assembly, but its decisions lack the legal force of council resolutions.
"Today the UN General Assembly sent a clear message to the people of Syria - the world is with you," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said in a statement.
"An overwhelming majority of UN member states have backed the plan put forward by the Arab League to end the suffering of Syrians," she said. "Bashar Assad has never been more isolated."
The resolution said the assembly "fully supports" the Arab League plan aimed at halting Syria's 11-month crackdown on anti-Assad demonstrators and urges UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to appoint a special envoy to Syria.
It also condemns Damascus for "widespread and systematic violations of human rights" and calls for the withdrawal of Syrian forces from towns and cities. The United Nations says more than 5,400 civilians have been killed in the uprising.
Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari rejected the resolution, telling the assembly it was part of a plot to overthrow Syria's government and allow the "terrorist" opposition to take over the country. "We have deep concerns vis-a-vis the real intentions of the countries that have co-sponsored this draft, particularly that these countries are leading a political and media aggression against Syria," he said.
Those countries, Ja'afari said, are providing "all media, financial and political support to the armed terrorist groups and securing them coverage in international fora."
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Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said the resolution "reflects the worrying trend ... to attempt to isolate the Syrian leadership, to reject any contact with it and to impose an external formula for a political settlement."
Earlier this week, Arab countries rejected proposed Russian amendments to the resolution that would have sought to blame Syria's government and opposition equally for the violence.
Western diplomats said before the vote that a large majority in favor of the resolution would increase the pressure on Assad to comply with the Arab League plan, and would highlight the isolation of Russia and China on the issue.
Iran, North Korea, Venezuela and Bolivia were among other countries that voted against the resolution and whose delegates voiced support for the Syrian government.
France and other Western powers have suggested that they would like to make a third attempt to persuade Russia not to block action on Syria in the Security Council. But UN diplomats say there are no signs Moscow is prepared to allow the 15-nation panel to pass any condemnation of Syria.
Before their Feb. 4 double veto, Moscow and Beijing, which oppose what they see as foreign interference in Syria, also knocked down a European-drafted resolution in October that would have condemned Damascus and threatened it with sanctions.
British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said Thursday's vote "sent a clear signal of the international community's condemnation of the Syrian regime's actions and intention to hold to account those responsible for the ongoing atrocities."
Egypt's deputy UN ambassador, Osama Abdul-Khaleq, said the resolution was a message to Damascus that it was "high time to listen to the voice of its people."
The league has called for the establishment of a joint UN-Arab League peacekeeping mission for Syria, but Western powers have reacted coolly to the idea and Thursday's resolution did not endorse it.
In a bitter concluding statement, Ja'afari blasted what he called the Arab League's "shameful position," which he said was aimed at "the settling of political accounts with Syria."
"Good luck to the Arab League in implementing the tasks entrusted to it by Israel," he said. "Congratulations for this new alliance between the League of Arab States and Israel and the historical enemies of Syria.