The U.N. General Assembly approved an Arab-backed resolution Wednesday calling for a political transition in Syria, but more than 70 countries refused to vote "yes" because of its support for the main opposition group and fears the resolution could torpedo a new U.S.-Russia effort to end the escalating conflict.
The United States co-sponsored the resolution, saying it would promote a political solution. But key Syrian ally Russia urged a "no" vote, saying it was "counterproductive and irresponsible" to promote a one-sided resolution when Moscow and Washington are trying to get the Syrian government and opposition to agree to negotiations.
The resolution, which is not legally binding though it can carry moral weight, was approved by a vote of 107-12 with 59 abstentions.
It welcomes the establishment of the Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition group, "as effective interlocutors needed for a political transition" and notes "wide international acknowledgment" that the group is the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. It also strongly condemns President Bashar Assad's regime for its escalating use of heavy weapons and "gross violations" of human rights.
The Arab group decided to seek approval of a wide-ranging resolution on Syria in the General Assembly, where there are no vetoes, to reflect international dismay at the increasing death toll, now more than 70,000, and the failure to end the more than two-year-old conflict.
Unlike Security Council resolutions, which are legally binding, General Assembly resolutions cannot be enforced. But approval of an assembly resolution would counter the paralysis of the deeply divided Security Council, where Syria's allies, Russia and China, have vetoed three Western-backed resolutions aimed at pressuring Assad to end the violence.
General Assembly President Vuk Jeremic told the 193-member world body that "what happens in Syria in the weeks and months ahead will profoundly bear upon the security and well-being of the entire region, and possibly beyond."
Jeremic warned, "If we are unable to do anything to stop this tragedy, then how can we sustain the moral credibility of this organization?"
U.S. deputy ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo told members before the vote that Syria faces a severe humanitarian crisis, with more than 1.4 million people fleeing the country and 4.25 million displaced inside it.
"It is clear that we need a Syrian-led peaceful political transition," she said, explaining that this is what spurred the U.S.-Russian initiative, announced on May 7.
"Adopting this resolution will send a clear message that the political solution we all seek is the best way to end the suffering of the people of Syria," DiCarlo said.
Russia's deputy U.N. ambassador Alexander Pankin sharply disagreed, calling the resolution "very harmful and destructive" and accusing its Arab sponsors of using it as a way to replace the Syrian government — not to find a political solution to the crisis.
Pankin strongly criticized the resolution for disregarding "illegal actions of the armed opposition" and blaming the worsening human rights situation entirely on the Syrian government.
Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari said the resolution "seeks to escalate the crisis and fuel violence in Syria' by legitimizing the provision of weapons to the opposition and illegally recognizing a single faction of the opposition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
British Prime Minister David Cameron backed the U.S.-Russian initiative and called for urgent action to pressure the Syrian government and opposition to put forward names for a transitional government that everyone can support so negotiations can get started.
Cameron said Britain has made no decision to arm the rebels but said it's important to engage with the opposition.
"If we don't engage with the opposition, then we shouldn't be surprised if extremist elements grow, and that's not what we want," he said.
Argentina tried to get Qatar, which led Arab negotiations on the resolution, to address violence by the opposition and weaken the language so the resolution wouldn't look like an endorsement of theSyrian National Coalition. But Qatar refused.
So Argentina abstained along with Brazil and more than a dozen other Latin American and Caribbean countries. They were joined by South Africa and about 20 other African states as well as India, Indonesia and half a dozen Asian and Pacific nations.
The new resolution demands that all parties work with U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to rapidly implement the roadmap for a Syrian political transition adopted at a meeting on June 30, 2012 in Geneva by key nations including the five Security Council powers — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France.
The roadmap starts with the establishment of a transitional governing body vested with full executive powers and ends with elections — but there has been no agreement on how to implement it, which would require Assad to relinquish power at some unspecified point.
The resolution also strongly condemns the Syrian regime's escalating use of heavy weapons and expresses "grave concern at the threat by the Syrian authorities to use chemical or biological weapons, as well as at allegations of reported use of such weapons."
Syria has said if it had such weapons, it would never use them against its own people.