BEIRUT – Syrian President Bashar Assad faced heightened economic and political pressures Monday as Europe imposed a new round of financial sanctions and King Abdullah of Jordan called on the embattled autocrat to step down.
Meanwhile, the Arab League, which on Saturday moved to suspend Syria because of its failure to implement a league-brokered peace deal, said it was preparing to send a delegation of up to 500 observers into Syria. Details were still being worked out with Damascus, the league’s general secretary, Nabil al-Araby, told reporters in Cairo.
Syria has said it would welcome Arab League observers, but the Assad regime has remained defiant in the face of Arab demands that it halt violence against civilian protesters.
“The Syrian people should not be worried because Syria is not Libya,” the country’s foreign minister, Walid Moallem, said in a nationally televised news conference.
Moallem’s comments demonstrate how the specter of Libya’s longtime ruler, Moammar Gadhafi, and his ultimate fate – ousted by rebels with the help of Western air power and later killed in ignominious fashion – haunts Assad’s administration, which is determined to avoid what it terms as “foreign interference” in its crisis.
In a BBC interview, Jordan’s Abdullah became the first Arab leader to say publicly that Assad should resign.
“If Bashar has the interest of his country, he would step down, but he would also create an ability to reach out and start a new phase of political life,” King Abdullah told the BBC.
The Jordanian monarch – who, like Assad, succeeded his father, in his case the late King Hussein – urged Assad to create a “national dialogue” to facilitate an orderly transition after more than 40 years of Assad family rule. Jordan, a major U.S. ally bordering Syria, has itself experienced scattered Arab Spring protests.
The Syrian uprising began in March near the Jordanian border in the southwestern provincial city of Daraa. Opposition activists reported that at least 28 were killed Monday in the Daraa area, some in clashes between armed rebels and security forces at the city’s northern entrance. The official government news agency said at least two law enforcement officers were killed and an unspecified number wounded in clashes with a “terrorist group” in the vicinity of Daraa.
The opposition reported at least 50 killed nationwide on Monday. The death toll could not be independently confirmed.
Foreign minister Moallem on Monday labeled the Arab League’s decision to suspend Syria’s membership “a very dangerous step,” reflecting widespread outrage in Syria, a founding member of the 22-nation league. But Moallem did issue an apology for attacks on foreign missions in Syria by pro-Assad loyalists.
Government opponents who have demanded Assad’s departure applauded the Arab League move as likely to hasten his exit.
Whether the faltering Arab League peace plan can be revived remains unclear, though Damascus insists it is committed to the process. Arab ministers gave Syria until Wednesday to demonstrate compliance. A league meeting is schedule for Wednesday in Rabat, Morocco.