11/24/2011 11:08 am ET Updated Jan 24, 2012

Syria Has Few Friends But UN Punitive Action Is Elusive

More than 3,500 people have been killed in Syria since March, many of them unarmed civilians. Security forces have maimed and injured others and arrested thousands subject to torture. Human Rights Watch says at least 105 people have died in custody.

After months of unsuccessful attempts, European nations took the issue to the U.N. General Assembly's human rights committee where an overwhelming majority, including many Middle East countries, voted in favor of a non-binding resolution condemning the government.

The vote made it clear that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had few friends in the world body and that most expected him to leave -- though how this should be done was unclear as sanctions or other punitive actions are not yet on the horizon. (A vote in the committee, which includes all U.N. members, is tantamount to passage by the General Assembly).

Syrian authorities have blamed the violence on foreign-backed armed groups they say have killed some 1,100 soldiers and police. But they produced no evidence of outside intervention.

However, Syria's U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, in remarks to the committee, held up documents he said named terrorists smuggling arms into Syria and blamed it all on a plot by the United States while Europeans were "suffering from Syria-phobia."

"Although the draft resolution is submitted primarily from three European countries it is not a secret that the United States of America is the mastermind and main instigator of the political campaign against my country," Ja'afari said.

A game changer?
The resolution "strongly" condemned the " grave and systematic human rights violations by the Syrian authorities," backed an Arab League peace plan and demanded an end to all human rights abuses, including "arbitrary executions, excessive use of force and the persecution and killing of protesters and human rights defenders."

Some delegations hope the Assembly resolution would set the stage for the 15-nation Security Council, where Russia and China vetoed the last effort against Syria. The Council, whose decisions are binding on all U.N. members, could impose an arms embargo or targeted sanctions on Syrian leaders involved in the abuse or refer the case to the International Criminal Court.

"The Security Council cannot fall behind the region," Germany's Ambassador Peter Wittig told reporters, referring to the Arab League suspension of Syria.

Said Philippe Bolopion of Human rights Watch:

As it continues to kill, imprison and torture protesters, the Syrian government is on notice that the circle of its friends at the UN is rapidly shrinking. The Security Council should take notice and get to work on a resolution.

But U.N.-sanctioned military action is not an alternative after the NATO action in Libya, which was called for by the Arab League and by the Security Council. Approving armed intervention has made delegations gun shy, as the result is rarely an immediate peace. And now Libya's former rebels are accused by the U.N. secretary-general for imprisoning and at times torturing 7,000 men, women and children, many of them Africans, without legal process.

For neighboring Turkey, where refugees and military defectors are fleeing, the world's reaction to Syria was too little too late and they are preparing for the worst. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, in a televised speech, told his former ally to quit.

For the love of God, who are you fighting with? ...Fighting your own people until the death is not heroism. It's cowardice. If you want to see someone who fights his people to the death, look at Nazi Germany, look at Hitler, look at Mussolini. If you cannot draw any lessons from these, then look at the Libyan leader who was killed just 32 days ago.

France's foreign minister, Alain Juppé, suggested on Thursday that "humanitarian corridors" be established to protect those under attack and deliver life-saving aid. While excluding military intervention for such a buffer zone, it was not clear who would protect civilians in such an area.

How they voted
Still, the General Assembly committee vote on Syria gave hope for some kind of Security Council action. Russia and China did not vote "no" but abstained on the resolution that received 122 votes in favor, 13 against and 41 abstentions.

Germany, Britain and France, the authors of the resolution, banked on getting support from Arab League members after the 21-nation group suspended Syria, a founding member, and asked for monitors to observe the carnage.

Arab states voting for the U.N. resolution against Syria included autocrats and democrats: Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates. Algeria, Comoros, Lebanon and Yemen abstained.

Arab League members Iraq, Djibouti and Somalia did not cast a vote among the 193 U.N. members. The 13 "no" votes came from Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Iran, North Korea, Belarus, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Uzbekistan, Vietnam as well as Syria.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose country is a major arms supplier to Syria, has said repeatedly that violence is the fault of all sides. By now he is correct in that renegade soldiers have taken up arms and attacked a government army base outside Damascus as well as other installations.

Lavrov predicted the violence was verging on civil war. Whether his country's abstention in the General Assembly is a sign of action in the Security Council is unclear. Among Russia's usual allies in the Council, India and South Africa also abstained on the General Assembly resolution but Brazil broke ranks and voted in favor.

(In October, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice considered the double vetoes against a Syrian resolution a lame excuse telling reporters: "This is not about Libya. That is a cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people.")

What now?
According to Robert M. Danin, a Middle East expert on the Council on Foreign Relations:

Removing Bashar al-Assad from power will not be easy. He still commands a strong and loyal army, and enjoys support from the business elite in Syria's two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo. So far, these cities have remained largely outside the unrest and killings sweeping large swathes of Syria. Finally, he retains the support of many in Syria, especially among its heterogeneous minorities who fear the day after his departure. Prying away these various pillars of his support will not be easy. But the Arab League's move toward suspending Syria just provided a large regional boost toward al-Bashar's hoped-for downfall.

So will Turkey and others ensure the opposition has enough military support to overthrow Assad? Suddenly, it's a fast moving saga.