UNITED NATIONS – The UN General Assembly on Thursday demanded an immediate halt to Syria's brutal crackdown on dissent, in a strongly worded resolution adopted by a 137-12 vote.
China, Russia and Iran opposed the text put forward by Egypt and other Arab states, and supported by Western powers, that condemned "widespread and systematic violations of human rights" by President Bashar al-Assad's government.
Seventeen nations abstained from the vote, which came just days after Russia and China locked diplomatic arms to use their veto power to derail a similar resolution in the UN Security Council for the second time.
While the resolution will increase the pressure on Assad, it is non-binding and does not carry the same weight as a Security Council resolution.
Egypt's deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Osama Abdelkhalek, said the General Assembly had sent an "unambiguous message" to Damascus: "It is high time to listen to the voice of the people."
But his Syrian counterpart, Bashar Jaafari, denounced the text as unwarranted meddling in his nation's domestic affairs, at a time when Damascus is battling "armed terrorist groups" while preparing for a referendum in 10 days on a new constitution.
"The Arab Trojan horse has been unmasked today," he said, alleging that Western powers had deftly exploited the Arab League in order to "internationalise" the situation.
Iran's ambassador, Mohammad Khazaee, said the General Assembly resolution would only deepen the Syrian crisis, "with all its ramifications to the region as a whole."
Russia's envoy said the resolution failed to incorporate amendments Moscow had proposed. His Chinese counterpart said it amounted to undue meddling in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.
The resolution, co-sponsored by 71 countries, heaps more international pressure on Assad's administration despite the unwavering diplomatic support it has secured from Moscow and Beijing.
The text demands that Syria "cease all violence and protect its population," free everyone detained in connection with the unrest, withdraw all troops from urban areas and guarantee freedom of demonstration.
It also insists on "full and unhindered access and movement" for Arab League monitors and international news media "to determine the truth about the situation on the ground."
"This is a new step towards ending the martyrdom of the Syrian people," said French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, adding that the resolution represented "massive and unequivocal support for the Syrian people."
"President Assad and those around him should be under no doubt that we will continue to support the Syrian people in their aspiration for a peaceful political transition," echoed British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
In a statement, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said it was "critical for the world to speak with one voice to put an end to the bloodshed and to exert maximum efforts to resolve this crisis peacefully."
"Today, the General Assembly has done so by indicating a way through the resolution toward a political solution and a peaceful future in Syria, with democracy, human rights and dignity for all of the Syrian people," he said.
Al-Qaeda likely behind Syria bombings
Al-Qaeda's branch in Iraq likely carried out recent suicide bombings in Syria and has infiltrated opposition forces fighting President Bashar al-Assad's government, the US spy chief said on Thursday.
Bombing attacks in Damascus and Aleppo since December "had all the earmarks of an al-Qaeda-like attack", James Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"And so we believe al-Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria," he said.
His comments confirmed earlier reports that US officials suspected al-Qaeda's hand in the bombings and follows a recent video message from al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in which he endorses the uprising against Assad's rule.
Iraq's deputy interior minister said this month that al-Qaeda was moving guns and militants from Iraq into Syria.
Clapper voiced concern that al-Qaeda militants had inserted themselves inside a divided opposition amid the spiralling violence that activists say has left more than 6,000 people dead since March 2011.
"Another disturbing phenomenon that we've seen recently, apparently, is the presence of extremists who have infiltrated the opposition groups.
"The opposition groups in many cases may not be aware that they're there," said Clapper, director of national intelligence.
Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking at a news conference with his German counterpart, Thomas De Maiziere, echoed Clapper's view but said al-Qaeda's influence on the opposition remained unclear.
Asked if Washington could support opposition forces given al-Qaeda's presence, Panetta said: "I think just the fact that they're present concerns us. As to what their role is, and how extensive their role is, I think that remains to be seen." -- AFP