The U.N. General Assembly told the Syrian government to stop shooting unarmed protestors and isolated its key supporter, Russia, in adopting a resolution that had at least 137 "yes "votes and only 12 against.
While the resolution, compared to one Russia and China vetoed in the Security Council, is non-binding, it does express the overwhelming will of the world community, endorses an Arab peace plan that calls on President Bashar al-Assad to step down and asks Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to appoint a special envoy for the Syrian crisis. (resolution text)
No matter how you spin, it, the vote was a humiliation for Syria and a defeat for Russia, backed by China.
"There are virtually no apologists left among U.N. states for Syria's disastrous human rights record," said Philippe Bolopion, U.N. director for Human Rights Watch.
Hospitals used as "torture centers"
Travelling in Vienna, Secretary-General Ban did not mince words. He rebuked the Assad government at a press conference as the government expanded shelling and shootings to the city of Dara'a after a house to house campaign in Homs. At least 5,400 people have been killed in the past year, the U.N. says.
"Every day those numbers rise. We seen neighborhoods shelled indiscriminately. Hospitals used as torture centers. Children as young as 10 years old jailed and abused. We see almost certain crimes against humanity. The lack of agreement in the Security Council does not give the government license to continue this assault on its own people. The longer we debate, the more people will die."
Sponsored by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and 70 other countries late on Thursday, Russia and China received support only from Syria, Iran, North Korea, Belarus, Zimbabwe and Latin Americans Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador. However, Algeria and Lebanon were among the 17 abstentions. (In a weird voting machine snafu, Burundi, one of the sponsors of the resolution, was unable to cast a vote as were Kyrgyzstan and the Comoros, so the final "yes" vote may be higher.)
And in the 193-member Assembly, another two dozen states did not vote at all, some out to a late lunch and others barred for failing to pay dues. (See recorded voting results).
Said Britain's U.N. ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant:
"It is of course true that a General Assembly resolution does not have legal force, but it does have strong political and moral force and it is an unambiguous message. We have seen today that more than 80% of the General Assembly voted in favor of this resolution and indeed the numbers would have been higher as some countries had not been allowed to vote because they are in financial arrears to the UN."
Syria's U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, told the Assembly that the vote was a plot to overthrow the government and allow terrorists to take over.
"We have deep concerns vis-à-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, in an apparent reference to Gulf nations Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
But he could not resist bringing Israel into the controversy, saying: "Good luck to the League of Arab States in implementing the task entrusted to it by Israel."
Russia's man in Damascus
Russia apparently feels that while Assad may be an s.o.b., he is Moscow's s.o.b. The Kremlin delivers arms to Syria, has a naval base there and wants negotiations. But the splintered Syrian opposition does not want Assad, whose family-run government is a minority clan, to be part of the talks.
Yet, if the slaughter is to end, Russia and the West need to talk about how to do it without encouraging such groups as Al Qaeda, which are slowly entering the fray. Some experts speculate that once Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wins his presidential election next month, Russia will be more flexible and threaten consequences if the killing continues.
As for the United States, military intervention in Syria is the last thing the Obama administration and most of its allies want, no matter how frequently apologists for Damascus claim Washington is getting ready for war. France's foreign minister, Alain Juppé, called for a "humanitarian corridor" but what kind of security force would guard it? So it may be back to Russia, if it is not too late.
Recipe for civil war
Civil war in Syria would be a disaster, spilling over into Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Israel. Professor Uzi Rabi of Tel Aviv University says Israeli speculation is 1.5 devices of light weaponry for each adult. "The exact recipe for a bloody civil war," he said in an interview.
Rabi, who is fluent in Farsi and Arabic, says Syria, unlike Egypt and Iran, was put together by colonialists and could disintegrate into power centers, ethnic groups and cantons. "We have here the dynamic of a failed state," Rabi said, adding that Syria could be broken up into pieces.
The beneficiary of a civil war would be Iran domination of the region, one reason Qatar and Saudi Arabia are campaigning so hard against Assad (although it is questionable how much democracy they ever want to see in Syria.)
Thursday's vote was preceded with a particularly grim appraisal to the Assembly on Monday by Navi Pillay, the tough U.N. high commissioner for human rights, who came of age under apartheid in South Africa.
Having organized a fact-finding team, she voiced frustration at the ongoing violence. Her full statement is heart-breaking and worth reading. She said in part:
"The nature and scale of abuses committed by Syrian forces indicate that crimes against humanity are likely to have been committed since March 2011. Independent, credible and corroborated accounts indicate that these abuses have taken place as part of a widespread and systematic attack on civilians. Furthermore, the breadth and patterns of attacks by military and security forces on civilians and the widespread destruction of homes, hospitals, schools and other civilian infrastructure indicate approval or complicity of the authorities at the highest levels."
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