With the U.N. Security Council deadlocked over the Syrian crisis, the General Assembly prepared Friday to denounce Syria for unleashing tanks, artillery, helicopters and warplanes on the people of Aleppo and Damascus, and demand that the Assad regime keep its chemical and biological weapons warehoused and under strict control.
The Assembly was overshadowed by the resignation of former U.N. chief Kofi Annan on Thursday as the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria after his peace proposals failed.
The anti-Syria resolution was expected to easily pass in the 193-member General Assembly after its Arab sponsors de-fanged two key provisions in the original draft — a demand that President Bashar Assad resign, and a call for other nations to place sanctions on Syria over its civil war.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous, meanwhile, told the Security Council on Thursday that U.N. military observers in Aleppo are seeing "a considerable buildup of military means, where we have reason to believe that the main battle is about to start." The rebels have commandeered tanks, and are bringing them into combat as Syrian warplanes strike back.
"Even in Damascus, I was there a few days ago, one could hear explosions regularly, interminably," Ladsous told reporters after briefing the Council.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged restraint on all sides, saying, "Both the government and the opposition forces continue to demonstrate their determination to rely on ever-increasing violence."
But in the General Assembly, diplomats reviewed a draft resolution by Saudi Arabia that focused all its indignation on Assad's government, military forces and the militias that enforce the regime.
It denounced attacks on children as young as 9 years old by the Syrian government, military intelligence services and militias, railing against 'killing and maiming, arbitrary arrest, detention, torture and ill-treatment, including sexual violence, and use as human shields."
In a sign of how quickly the situation can change, the resolution that began to circulate Monday reaffirmed its support for Annan, though he had resigned as special envoy on Thursday.
The original draft had called for Assad to resign, highlighting an Arab League call on July 22 for "the Syrian president to step down from power, in order to facilitate a peaceful political transition."
That naked call for regime change appalled many U.N. members when the draft was discussed in private with regional groups on Tuesday. Syria was one of the original 51 members of the United Nations in 1945. Now, the world body set up to protect nation-states from invasion and foreign domination was about to demand a change in government from one of its charter members.
Russia and China opposed the draft, as expected. Both countries have cast a double-veto in the Security Council three times to kill resolutions that could have opened the door to sanctions on Syria, or even military intervention.
Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said he could not support the General Assembly's "extremely unbalanced and one-sided resolution. And those countries who are pushing this resolution most actively are the countries that are providing weapons to the armed opposition groups. This is unfortunately, the tragedy of the matter, something which made Kofi Annan's efforts so difficult."
But the Saudi sponsors of the draft resolution were taken aback when General Assembly nations including Brazil, India, Pakistan, South Africa and Argentina choked on the regime change and sanctions paragraphs in the draft. Iraq suffered for years under U.N. sanctions intended to pressure Saddam Hussein, but which only afflicted the Iraqi people, until he was toppled in 2003 by the United States, Britain, and their allies in the Gulf War.
With the tougher language, the Saudi resolution was in danger of falling below 100 votes in the 193-member Assembly, and would be seen as weak and lacking moral authority. General Assembly resolutions are unenforceable. The last General Assembly resolution on Syria, in February, had 137 votes in favour.
The draft was quickly pulled back and the regime change and sanctions provisions were stricken out by Wednesday. The revised resolution still demands that the Syrian army stop its shelling and helicopter attacks and withdraw to its barracks.
It takes a swipe at Russia and China by "deploring the Security Council failure" to act.
The resolution condemns the increasing Syrian military reliance on heavy weapons, including tanks and helicopters, and "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, a former U.N. secretary-general who has been trying to mediate the crisis.
It backs Annan's "demand that the first step in the cessation of violence has to be made by the Syrian authorities, and therefore calls upon the Syrian authorities to fulfil immediately their commitment to cease the use of heavy weapons and complete the withdrawal of their troops and heavy weapons to their barracks."
Reacting to Syria's recent confirmation that it has chemical weapons and 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." It further demands that Syria account for and secure its chem-bio weapons.
But the rhetoric was evidence of the frustration within the United Nations, and around it.
French Ambassador Geraud Araud, the president of the Security Council for the month, threw barbs at Russia and China for bottling up the Security Council: "We've been hit with three vetoes in a row," he told reporters.
"The risk is that some countries have drawn the conclusion that it is over, that the Council is impotent on Syria," Araud said.
Araud said that the Council cannot make any political progress on Syria, so he intended to convene a high-level Security Council meeting, inviting foreign ministers to New York, to focus on humanitarian concerns late in August. He praised the work of the Syrian Red Crescent, the only aid agency allowed to operate in Syria, but said they cannot do it all and called for Syria to allow other groups in.
Another likely victim of the Security Council bottleneck is the group of U.N. military observers that have been monitoring the spiraling violence in Syria, and reporting back to Ladsous at U.N. headquarters. The mission is in the midst of a 30-day extension of its mandate, which expires on Aug. 19. Extending it would require passage of another resolution in the Security Council -- and no Russian or Chinese veto. It is already being cut back, from its original authorized strength of 300 to currently 115 monitors and 80 civilians.
"There will be no agreement, I think," Araud said. "It is clear that the mission will disappear by Aug. 19."
Ladsous tried to sound optimistic as he left the Council briefing Thursday: "We have another 17 days to see whether something happens that will change the situation."