Arab countries pushed ahead on Wednesday with a symbolic U.N. General Assembly resolution that tells Syrian President Bashar Assad to resign and turn over power to a transitional government. It also demands that the Syrian Army stop its shelling and helicopter attacks and withdraw to its barracks. A vote is set for Friday morning.
The draft resolution circulated up through Wednesday takes a swipe at Russia and China by “deploring the Security Council failure” to act. Moscow and Beijing have used their veto in the smaller, more powerful Council three times to kill resolutions that could have opened the door to sanctions on Syria.
While the 193-member General Assembly has no legal mechanism for enforcing a resolution, an overwhelming vote can carry moral and symbolic power. Voting is by simple majority, and there is no veto.
The U.N. reported a significant escalation in Syria’s civil war on Wednesday, with the military using warplanes to fire on opposition fighters in the 12-day battle for Aleppo.
The General Assembly draft resolution, written by Saudi Arabia and lobbied for by Egypt and Bahrain, is an attempt to get around the stalemate in the Security Council.
“What’s important here is that a meeting of the General Assembly on this topic would be an expression of the frustration felt in the international community at large about what’s happening in Syria and the inability of the international community, so far, to be able to help bring an end to the violence that everybody wishes to see,” said Martin Nesirky, spokesman for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
France, which took over the Security Council presidency for the month of August on Wednesday, has called for a foreign minister-level meeting of the Security Council to address the Syria crisis. It was not clear what that could accomplish.
U.N. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to be quoted, said the Arab countries might be ready to weaken some provisions of the draft resolution to guarantee a larger majority vote. The last General Assembly resolution on Syria had 137 votes in favour.
A Council diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak publicly, said the Arab sponsors of the resolution had decided to make some “tweaks” in the text after receiving reaction from other delegations Wednesday, and were working to build the majority.
The resolution condemns the increasing Syrian military reliance on heavy weapons, including tanks and helicopters, and the “failure to withdraw its troops and heavy weapons to their barracks” in line with a set of proposals by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, the former U.N. Secretary-General who has been trying to mediate the crisis.
The resolution backs Mr. Annan’s demand that “the first step in the cessation of violence has to be made by the Syrian authorities.”
Reacting to Syria’s recent confirmation that it has chemical weapons and its announcement that it would use them on any invaders, the General Assembly “demands that the Syrian authorities refrain from using, or transferring to non-State actors, any chemical and biological weapons, or any related material.”
A vote had been set for Thursday morning but was postponed until Friday morning, the General Assembly spokeswoman’s office announced late Wednesday.
Mystery deepens about Assad’s whereabouts
Mr. Assad urged his military on Wednesday to boost its fight against rebels, but his written call to arms only deepened a mystery over his whereabouts two weeks after a bomb penetrated his inner circle.
Mr. Assad has not spoken publicly since the July 18, 2012 bombing killed four of his top security officials including his brother-in-law during a rebel assault on the capital, Damascus. The President’s low profile has raised questions about whether he fears for his personal safety as the civil war escalates dramatically.
The United States called the Syrian President a coward for marshalling his forces from the pages of the Army’s official magazine.
“We think it’s cowardly, quite frankly, to have a man hiding out of sight, exhorting his armed forces to continue to slaughter the civilians of his own country,” said U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell.
Sausan Ghosheh, the spokeswoman for the U.N. mission in Syria, said on Wednesday that international observers witnessed warplanes firing in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, where intense fighting has been raging for 12 days.
Speaking to reporters in Damascus, Mr. Ghosheh said the situation in Aleppo was dire.
“Yesterday, for the first time, our observers saw firing from a fighter aircraft. We also now have confirmation that the opposition is in a position of having heavy weapons, including tanks,” she said, adding that for civilians, there “is a shortage of food, fuel, water and gas.”
The U.N.’s World Food Programme said it was sending enough emergency food aid for 28,000 people in the city of 3 million. The U.N. has estimated that some 200,000 residents have fled Aleppo.
On Wednesday, a Ukrainian military plane evacuated from Aleppo dozens of Ukrainians and Polish women with their children and in some cases Syrian husbands.
As the country delves further into chaos, there are mounting concerns about Syrian rebels carrying out atrocities against regime supporters.
A video posted online, which was impossible to verify independently, appeared to show rebels executing a man they identified as a member of the “shabiha,” or a pro-regime militiaman, in a hail of gunfire. Such developments pose a serious problem for the opposition, which has tried to claim the moral high ground against an authoritarian regime that has been accused of war crimes.
The conflict in Syria, which activists say has killed more than 19,000 people since March 2011, has drawn deep international condemnation. But world powers have few options to help beyond diplomacy in part because of fears that any military intervention could make matters worse. Syria’s close ties to Iran and the Islamic militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon mean that the conflict has the potential to draw in the country’s neighbours.