UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The 193-nation U.N. General Assembly ratcheted up the pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday by overwhelmingly approving a resolution that endorses an Arab League plan calling for him to step aside.
The initial count showed that the resolution, which is similar to one Russia and China vetoed in the Security Council on February 4, received 137 votes in favor, 12 against and 17 abstentions, though three delegations said their votes failed to register on the electronic board.
Russia and China were among those opposing the resolution, which was drafted by Saudi Arabia and submitted by Egypt on behalf of Arab U.N. delegations. Unlike in the Security Council, there are no vetoes in the General Assembly, and its decisions lack the legal force of council resolutions.
"Today the U.N. General Assembly sent a clear message to the people of Syria - the world is with you," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said in a statement.
"An overwhelming majority of UN member states have backed the plan put forward by the Arab League to end the suffering of Syrians," she said. "Bashar al-Assad has never been more isolated."
The resolution said the assembly "fully supports" the Arab League plan and urges U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to appoint a special envoy to Syria. It also condemns Damascus for "widespread and systematic violations of human rights" and calls for the withdrawal of Syrian forces from towns and cities.
Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari rejected the resolution, telling the assembly that it was part of a plot to overthrow Syria's government and allow the "terrorist" opposition to take over the country.
"We have deep concerns vis-a-vis the real intentions of the countries that have co-sponsored this draft, particularly that these countries are leading a political and media aggression against Syria," he said.
Those countries, Ja'afari said, are providing "all media, financial and political support to the armed terrorist groups and securing them coverage in international fora."
Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said the resolution "reflects the worrying trend ... to attempt to isolate the Syrian leadership, to reject any contact with it and to impose an external formula for a political settlement."
Western diplomats said before the vote that a large majority in favor of the resolution would increase the pressure on Assad to comply with the Arab League plan, and would highlight the isolation of Russia and China on the issue.
Iran, North Korea, Venezuela and Bolivia were among other countries that voted against the resolution and whose delegates voiced support for the Syrian government.
(Reporting By Louis Charbonneau and Patrick Worsnip; editing by Mohammad Zargham)