Story highlights

The symbolic resolution passes by an overwhelming margin

"Change must now come," U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice says

It marks the strongest U.N. statement to date against the Syrian regime

United Nations CNN  — 

The United Nations General Assembly passed Thursday by an overwhelming margin a nonbinding resolution endorsing the Arab League plan for the Syrian president to step down. The vote was 137 in favor and 12 against, with 17 abstentions.

The symbolic resolution that condemns President Bashar al-Assad’s violent crackdown in Syria was introduced into the assembly after China and Russia blocked the Security Council from approving enforceable measures aimed at curbing the violence.

“Today, the U.N. General Assembly sent a clear message to the people of Syria: the world is with you,” said U.S. Ambassador Susan E. Rice in a statement. “Bashar al-Assad has never been more isolated. A rapid transition to democracy in Syria has garnered the resounding support of the international community. Change must now come.”

While the resolution adopted by the 193-member nation General Assembly is not binding, it marks the strongest U.N. statement to date condemning al-Assad’s regime. It calls on Syria to end human rights violations and attacks against civilians immediately, and condemns violence by al-Assad’s forces and the opposition.

For nearly a year, al-Assad has denied reports that his forces are targeting civilians, saying they were fighting armed gangs and foreign fighters bent on destabilizing the government.

But the vast majority of accounts from within the country say that Syrian forces are slaughtering civilians as part of a crackdown on anti-government opposition calling for al-Assad’s ouster.

The uprising in Syria – influenced by the Arab Spring that saw regime change in Egypt and Tunisia – began about a year ago in the southern city of Daraa with protests calling for reforms that eventually gave way to calls for regime change.

It is unclear what, if any, effect the resolution will have on what many world leaders see as a relentless campaign by al-Assad’s forces to stamp out opposition.

The General Assembly’s vote followed news that France is bringing another resolution before the U.N. Security Council. “We are currently renegotiating a resolution at the U.N Security Council to see if we can persuade the Russians,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told radio station France Info on Wednesday.

Russia is seen as the linchpin in winning passage of a resolution that could force change in Syria because it could open al-Assad’s regime up to U.N. sanctions. It also could expose the president and his inner circle to possible prosecution by the International Criminal Court.

Syria is not a signatory of the Rome Statute that established the ICC’s authority. The Security Council is the only world body that can refer crimes against humanity to the international court.

Russia, a Soviet-era ally with trade and arms ties to Syria, has been adamantly opposed to a resolution that calls for al-Assad to step down, saying it amounts to a mandate for regime change.

Russia has given mixed messages as to whether it would accept a U.N. arms embargo or economic sanctions, even though it has said it is concerned about the prospect of a Syrian civil war.

Meanwhile, China announced Thursday that it was sending an envoy to Syria in an attempt to help defuse the crisis, according to state-run China National Radio (CNR).

Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun is scheduled to travel Friday to Syria for a two-day visit, CNR said. The report did not say with whom the minister would meet.

The diplomatic developments come amid reports Thursday that Syrian forces shelled the flashpoint city of Homs for a 13th consecutive day, targeting the opposition stronghold neighborhoods of Bab Amr, Inshaat and Khailidya, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition activist group.

CNN’s Richard Roth contributed to this story