By Michelle Nichols and Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. General Assembly condemned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces and praised the opposition on Wednesday, but a decline in support for the resolution suggested growing unease about extremism among Syria's fractious rebels.
While the non-binding text has no legal force, resolutions of the 193-nation assembly can carry significant moral and political weight. There were 107 votes in favor, 12 against and 59 abstentions - a drop in support compared with a resolution condemning the Syrian government that passed in August with 133 votes in favor, 12 against and 31 abstentions.
U.N. diplomats cited concerns that Syria could be headed for "regime change" engineered by foreign governments and fears about a strengthening Islamist extremist element among the rebels as reasons for the decline in support for the resolution.
Russia, a close ally and arms supplier for Assad, strongly opposed the resolution drafted by Qatar, which Assad's government has accused of arming the rebels seeking to oust him. But Moscow, which along with China has used its veto three times to prevent Security Council action against Assad, could not block the motion as there are no vetoes in the General Assembly.
Diplomats said the Russian delegation wrote to all U.N. members urging them to oppose the resolution. Moscow has complained that the resolution undermines U.S.-Russian efforts to organize a peace conference that would include Assad's government and rebels, a meeting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said would likely take place in early June.
Syrian U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari told the General Assembly before the vote that the resolution went against the U.S.-Russia push for a diplomatic solution to the 2-year-old crisis, which the United Nations says has killed at least 80,000 people.
"It is running against the current, especially in the light of the latest Russian-American rapprochement, which the Syrian government welcomed," Ja'afari said.
U.S. Deputy Ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo argued that the resolution was consistent with the Russian-U.S. initiative and sent "a clear message that the political solution we all seek is the best way to end the suffering of the people of Syria."
British Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York that he did not want planning for the conference to become "too long a process." He said pressure should be put on all warring parties to come up urgently with names for a transitional government "that everyone in Syria can get behind.
Some U.N. diplomats and officials, however, are skeptical that the U.S.-Russian initiative will resolve the deadlock, which has prevented the 15-nation Security Council from taking any action on Syria, given the wide gulf between Moscow and Washington.
DOUBTS INCREASE ABOUT THE REBELS
Wednesday's resolution, which had strong backing from Western and Gulf Arab states, was originally conceived to give Syria's U.N. seat to the opposition Syrian National Coalition. But U.N. diplomats said it became clear in early negotiations that such a move would not pass the assembly, where many delegations fear their own governments could one day face rebel uprisings.
The resolution did, though, welcome the establishment of the Syrian National Coalition "as effective representative interlocutors needed for a political transition."
The Syrian National Coalition welcomed the U.N. resolution, but said in a statement that much more needed to be done with a greater urgency to end the suffering of the Syrian people.
Syria accuses Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United States, Britain and France of arming the rebels. The countries have denied the allegations but the rebels keep getting arms.
South Africa Ambassador Kingsley Mamabolo said his country, which voted in favor of the previous resolution condemning Assad's government, abstained this time because it opened the door to "regime change" by forces from outside Syria.
Experts have long said the militant al-Nusra Front in Syria is receiving support from al Qaeda-linked militants in neighboring Iraq. The group has claimed responsibility for deadly bombings in Damascus and Aleppo, and its fighters have joined other Syrian rebel brigades.
Iran, Bolivia, Venezuela, North Korea, Belarus and other delegations that tend to oppose U.S. policy at the United Nations also voted no. Ecuador, which abstained last year, said it voted against the resolution because it feared it legitimized a coup and wondered "who will be the next country on the list."
Indonesia, which voted in favor of the August resolution, said it abstained mainly because of the resolution's implied recognition of the Syrian opposition.
Mohammad Khazaee, the ambassador of Syria's ally and arms supplier Iran, accused the rebels of using chemical weapons against Syrians, something the opposition says was done by Assad's government and not rebel forces. He also spoke of an increasing number of "terrorist and extremist groups" in Syria.
Russia also warned about terrorist elements in Syria.
A U.N. plan for a chemical weapons investigation has been blocked because Assad's government has refused to grant an international inspection team unfettered access in the country. The government only wants the team to inspect Aleppo and not Homs, both sites of alleged chemical weapons attacks that the rebels and government accuse each other of perpetrating.
The vote could show that recent images of savagery from the civil war - a rebel commander biting a heart ripped out of an enemy combatant - may be undermining the case of those arguing Syria would be better without Assad.
There have also been grisly images of acts committed by Assad's forces making their way around the Internet.
Another reason for drop in support for the resolution, envoys said, may be the fact that Assad remains in control of much of the country and has demonstrated that his armed forces and allied militia have not lost the war - although they have not been able to win either.
"I'm convinced a lot of countries voted for (last year's) text because they believed they were voting for the winning side," a senior Western U.N. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said in reference to the August, 2012 resolution. "They are not so sure anymore."
"Now also you have the Islamist, terrorist factor which is much more conspicuous," he said.
The Syrian conflict started with mainly peaceful demonstrations against Assad, but turned into a civil war in which the United Nations says at least 80,000 people have been killed. Islamist militants have emerged as the most potent of the anti-Assad rebels.
Wednesday's vote came as Washington and European governments have been mulling the benefits and risks of supplying arms to Syrian rebels.
A French official said on Wednesday that France was floating a proposal that the European Union should ease an arms embargo but delay acting on the decision to intensify pressure on Damascus to negotiate an end to the civil war.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham, David Brunnstrom and Bill Trott)