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U.N. General Assembly backs call for Syria's Assad to step down

The General Assembly denounces the Syrian government's 'systematic violations of human rights.' Opposition activists report the deaths of dozens more people.

February 16, 2012|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • Amateur video purportedly shows Syrian government forces in the restive city of Homs. A fresh government offensive also was reported in the southern province of Dara.
Amateur video purportedly shows Syrian government forces in the restive… (Shaam News Network )

Reporting from Beirut — Opposition activists reported dozens more people were killed in Syria on Thursday as the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly condemned the Syrian government's "systematic violations of human rights" and backed a plan calling for President Bashar Assad to relinquish power.

The vote by the 193-member body in New York provided a symbolic victory for the United States, Turkey, Arab nations and others calling for the ouster of the Syrian leader.

But the move seemed unlikely to make much difference on the ground in Syria, where the U.N. says more than 5,000 people have died in the conflict since antigovernment protests erupted almost a year ago.

Opposition activists reported at least 63 people killed Thursday, including 38 in the rebellious northwestern province of Idlib, where the government is fighting to regain control of territory lost to armed rebels.

Casualty figures cannot be independently verified in much of Syria, where media access is limited.

As the nation veers toward civil war, a fresh government offensive also was reported Thursday in the southern province of Dara, where the rebellion began in March.

The coalition seeking Assad's ouster had twice been thwarted in the U.N. Security Council, but it found a more receptive audience in a chamber that includes most of the world's governments.

Although the resolution approved Thursday is nonbinding, its supporters hope that it will increase pressure on the embattled Assad while bestowing additional political and moral authority on the international coalition pushing for him to step down.

"Today, the U.N. General Assembly sent a clear message to the people of Syria: The world is with you," said Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.

Syria's U.N. ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, denounced the vote as a "shameful" sellout by a "Trojan horse" Arab League to the West and Israel. He predicted that it would lead to "more chaos and more crisis."

Among other provisions, the U.N. resolution backs an Arab League plan calling for Assad to relinquish power as part of a transition to a more representative government in Syria, which has been ruled for more than 40 years by the Assad family.

Unlike votes in the Security Council, however, the resolution does not have the force of law. The General Assembly measure is similar to a Security Council resolution vetoed on Feb. 4 by Russia and China. Russia and China also voted against Thursday's measure.

Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, lamented that the measure was designed to "isolate the leadership" of Syria rather than promote dialogue.

His comments underscored the fundamental divide in the Syria debate: The time for dialogue is over, according to the anti-Assad coalition that includes the U.S., most Arab nations, Turkey and Western Europe. All have called on Assad to step down. But Russia and China argue that dialogue still has a chance.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov flew to Damascus this month and said Assad was open to negotiation with the opposition. A high-level Chinese delegation is expected in the Syrian capital in the coming days.

The anti-Assad coalition has formed a "Friends of Syria" alliance to assist the Syrian opposition. The "friends" group is scheduled to meet in Tunisia on Feb. 24 and is expected to approve humanitarian and other aid for those seeking to oust Assad.

For his part, Assad has called for a referendum on a draft constitution to be held Feb. 26 despite the ongoing violence. The constitution would enshrine new freedoms, end the monopoly on power of Assad's Baath Party and set a timetable for multiparty elections.

The Russian government called the referendum a hopeful step. Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, labeled it "laughable."

On Thursday, opposition groups said the Syrian government raided a press-freedom advocacy center in Damascus, arresting rights activist Mazen Darwish and a dozen others, including Razan Ghazzawi, a U.S.-born blogger.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the arrests as "a blatant attempt to close off a vital source of information not only for Syrians but for the international media," said the committee's deputy director, Robert Mahoney.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Special correspondent Rima Marrouch contributed to this report.

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