After UN condemns Syria abuses, Assad rains artillery down on Homs

Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad redoubled his assault on the city of Homs after a symbolic UN General Assembly vote calling on him to step down.

Devra Berkowitz/The United Nations/AP
In this photo, Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Ja'afari can be seen on the monitor as he addresses the U. N. General Assembly, Thursday, Feb. 16, at United Nations Headquarters. The UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to back an Arab League plan calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down and strongly condemning human rights violations by his regime.

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Syria's Bashar al-Assad delivered an emphatic and bloody response to the UN General Assembly vote yesterday calling for the Syrian leader to stop attacking civilians and step down from power.

Mr. Assad's forces rained down artillery shells on the city of Homs, a rebel bastion that has over the past week received one of the most withering and sustained government assaults of the war.

VOA reports that Assad retains powerful allies and has shown no signs of a willingness to step down.

General Assembly resolutions are non-binding, but reflect world opinion on major issues.  Eleven nations joined Syria in voting against the resolution, most notably Russia and China, which vetoed a similar measure in the U.N. Security Council earlier this month.  The VOA correspondent in New York says other nations whose ambassadors spoke against the General Assembly resolution included Iran, North Korea, Bolivia and Venezuela.

There are growing concerns that Syria's sectarian-tinged civil war could spread beyond its borders. Mr. Assad's regime is largely backed by the heterodox Alawite sect he belongs to, and is largely opposed by Syria's Sunni Arab majority. There has been scattered fighting between Alawites and Sunnis in Lebanese city of Tripoli recently, and some fear the regional implications are growing.

Reuters reports that support is beginning to flow from Iraq.

Smuggled guns are filtering into Syria but it is not clear if Arab or other governments are backing any such transfers. Iraqi security officials say there are signs Sunni Muslim insurgents are beginning to cross the border to join Syrian rebels. Smugglers are cashing in as prices double for weapons reaching Syria concealed in commercial traffic.

For now, however, such weaponry cannot match the firepower that Assad's military can bring to bear, analysts say, but that could change if Assad fails to heed Arab peace calls. A non-Gulf Arab ambassador said Qatar and Saudi Arabia had insisted on the "material support" wording to cover "all kinds of support including weapons in future", adding: "But we see this as a dangerous escalation."

A senior Arab diplomat voiced fears that such a step could ignite a conflagration in Syria, a nation of Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, Kurds and Druze at the heart of the Arab world.

Syria was a major supplier of Sunni jihaddis to the insurgency against the US occupation of Iraq, and there are signs that the Sunni Iraqis are now reciprocating. Sunni Islamists have long been repressed by Assad's regime, and the smuggling lines that kept arms and men flowing to battles in Iraq's Anbar province can run the other way.

At the government to government level, Iraq appears to be providing some support for Assad. The new Iraq's Shiite leaders are politically close to Iran, a major backer of Assad, and have avoided condemnation of his actions to this point. The Wall Street Journal reports:

On Thursday, U.S. intelligence officials said they now believe al Qaeda operatives are joining the battle against the Assad regime. "We believe that al Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria," James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said in a Senate hearing, the most direct connection yet drawn by U.S. officials between terrorist groups and the Syrian opposition. Recent explosions on security and police installations in Damascus and Aleppo, he said, "had all the earmarks of an al Qaeda-like attack."

Iraqis, meanwhile, have allegedly been arming both sides of the Syrian conflict. Sunni leaders in Iraq have claimed to be arming the opposition to Mr. Assad. Syrian opposition members have accused Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of aiding Mr. Assad by turning a blind eye to the passage of Iraqi Shiite militiamen, as well as Iranian fighters and weapons transiting to Syria through Iraq, to assist Mr. Assad in his crackdown. Iraqi officials deny this.

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