CAIRO – In a stinging rebuke of President Bashar Assad, the Arab League voted Saturday to suspend Syria if his regime fails to take immediate steps to implement a peace plan designed to end months of unrest in the country.
The suspension takes effect Wednesday, a delay that would appear designed to give Syria one more chance to comply with the league-brokered plan approved earlier this month.
The 22-member league warned that Syria, whose economy already is reeling under the weight of international sanctions imposed in the wake of its crackdown on opposition protests, could face further economic and political penalties from Arab nations.
“Syria is a dear country for all of us, and it pains us to make this decision,” Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheik Hamad bin Jassim al Thani, told reporters after the meeting in Cairo. “We hope there will be a brave move from Syria to stop the violence and begin a real dialogue toward real reform.”
He suggested that Arab nations withdraw their ambassadors from the Syrian capital, Damascus – a step that some, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have already taken.
The United Nations estimates that 3,500 people have been killed in almost eight months of bloodshed.
The league peace plan mandates that Syria withdraw armed forces from populated areas, release political prisoners and begin a dialogue with opponents, among other steps. The opposition is also required to cease hostilities.
Arab League ministers apparently felt compelled to respond to what many view as Assad’s defiance of their peace blueprint. But the practical effect of a suspension remained to be seen.
Still, the action by a regional Arab group that is often criticized as feckless underscored the gravity of events in Syria and further isolates Syria diplomatically. The protests and violence have undermined the autocratic rule of Assad and raised the prospect of civil war in the strategically situated nation, which borders Israel, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
Syria’s close allies, Iran and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah movement, have issued stern warnings against foreign intervention in Syria.
An Arab League vote helped set the stage for the Western-led bombing campaign in Libya that precipitated the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi. Qatar’s Jassim insisted that Saturday’s move was not a prelude to intervention in Syria.
But Jassim did not rule out the possibility that the league would call on international organizations, including the United Nations, to protect Syrian civilians.
Syria’s Arab League representative, Yousef Ahmad, denounced the suspension, calling it a “eulogy for Arab common action” and a “blatant announcement” that the league was “subordinate to U.S.-Western agendas,” the official Syrian news agency reported.