U.N. General Assembly to denounce Syria, but divisions stand firmly in way of real action

China's Ambassador to the United Nations, Li Baodong (R), Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin (C) and U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice chat before a vote on a new U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria at U.N. headquarters, July 19, 2012 in New York.
Updated at 10:19 a.m. ET

(CBS/AP) UNITED NATIONS - 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.

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Annan resigning as international envoy to Syria

British Ambassador to the U.N. Mark Lyall Grant told reporters that "Diplomacy has taken a backseat to the events on the ground," CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk reports.

"Although the General Assembly resolution talks about progress on a political transition, that is all it is - talk - because the hope of the Annan peace plan was to be ready for a transition to avoid chaos in a power vacuum if the Assad government steps aside, and now diplomacy has little role," Falk said.

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.

CBS News correspondent Charlie D'Agata, reporting from the outskirts of Aleppo, says at one point, he and the rebel fighters he's traveling with got to within about a mile of the city, and it was clear from explosions heard even at that distance that it is already "a warzone". (Click at left to see D'Agata's report from the front lines)

For their part, says D'Agata, the rebels take very little interest in what is going on at the U.N. The fighters on the front lines in the battle to wrest Syria's largest city definitively from the control of Assad's regime say the U.N. has proven itself of little help to their cause.

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."

Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan meets with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, unseen, at the Great Hall of People in Beijing March 27, 2012.
Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan

In a sign of how quickly the situation can change, the resolution that began to circulate Monday reaffirmed its support for Annan, seen at left, 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 favor.

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.