Syrians walk past a destroyed tank in Aleppo, the scene of intense fighting… (Ahmad Gharabli, AFP/Getty…)
The U.N. General Assembly condemned the Syrian government's latest attacks on rebellious citizens Friday in a symbolic vote that also criticized infighting on the Security Council that has thwarted intervention to halt an escalating civil war.
The resolution deplored the violence engulfing Syria's biggest city, Aleppo, and included a call by Arab neighbors for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down.
As violence surged, the Russian Defense Ministry reported that a flotilla of its warships was heading for the eastern Mediterranean Sea. It issued conflicting accounts of whether the vessels would dock at Tartus, a Syrian port where Russia maintains a naval base.
PHOTOS: Syria conflict (graphic content)
At the General Assembly in New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-mooncalled the Syrian conflict "a test of everything the United Nations stands for."
He blamed both Assad's forces and armed rebels for the bloodshed, but singled out the government in a warning about using heavy weapons.
"The acts of brutality that are being reported may constitute crimes against humanity or war crimes," Ban said, vowing to see the perpetrators "held to account."
The General Assembly's 133-12 vote, with 31 abstentions, included neither punishment nor threat of intervention. But it sent a message to Assad that the world body sees his crackdown as immoral, and that his grip on power must be broken.
The resolution originally called for Assad to step down and for member nations to impose sanctions on the government in Damascus. Those provisions were removed at the insistence of China and Russia, two permanent Security Council members that have vetoed previous efforts to punish Assad.
The diplomats indirectly chastised Moscow and Beijing, including in the resolution a statement "deploring the failure of the Security Council" to enforce its own decisions.
The resolution condemned "killing and maiming, arbitrary arrest, detention, torture and ill-treatment, including sexual violence and use [of citizens] as human shields." It also demanded that the government withdraw heavy weapons, order troops to their barracks and lock down chemical and biological weapons.
Although a direct appeal for Assad to leave was deleted, the resolution included a July 22 appeal by the Arab League for his resignation, a message that U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice deemed an important expression of the international community's intent.
Syria's ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, dismissed the vote as "a piece of theater" staged by regional rivals Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain.
The Syrian government and opposition activists traded accusations after a mortar attack late Thursday that killed at least 20 people in Damascus' sprawling Yarmouk district, home to tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees. Graphic video said to be from the district on the southern outskirts of the capital showed the bloody and smoky aftermath: charred bodies, dazed victims, battered buildings, scenes repeated with a numbing regularity in strife-ravaged Syria.
In Moscow, the Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed Defense Ministry source as saying three landing assault ships, an anti-submarine ship and four smaller vessels might call on Tartus by Sunday. The ships are carrying about 360 marines and amphibious armored personnel carriers, Interfax said.
A Defense Ministry statement said the ships wouldn't call on Tartus but was revised later to say that some vessels might dock to pick up supplies "if the time period of the trip is extended."
"Most likely their task will be to evacuate the personnel and equipment of the base," said Alexander Golts, a defense expert and deputy editor-in-chief of Yezhednevny Zhurnal, or the Weekly Journal.
The ships lack the capacity for evacuating the tens of thousands of Russians living in Syria. But the deployment could be aimed at securing a landing strip at Damascus airport for an air evacuation, Golts said.
Williams reported from Los Angeles and Loiko from Moscow. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.