BEIRUT – Arab efforts to reach a compromise with Syria over its handling of months of unrest appeared to be all but over Sunday as foreign ministers meeting in Cairo voted overwhelmingly to impose punishing sanctions against the regime of President Bashar Assad.
The unusually aggressive move by the Arab League, an organization often criticized as spineless and ineffective, came after Syria refused to halt a violent crackdown on dissent and repeatedly ignored deadlines to accept Arab observers to monitor a peace plan the league negotiated with the government this month.
The scale of the bloodshed in Syria, where the United Nations says more than 3,500 people have been killed since major protests began in March, has raised fears of civil war in a nation situated strategically at the heart of the Middle East.
The opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria said at least 40 more people were killed Saturday as the government turned its guns on centers of resistance. The claim could not be independently verified.
Assad’s government blames the unrest on armed gangs, saying that more than 1,100 security force members have been killed. The uprising began with mostly peaceful protests inspired by the rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt, but more recently some members of the opposition have been fighting back, including a group of army defectors known as the Free Syrian Army that has claimed responsibility for attacks on the military.
Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheik Hamad bin Jassim al Thani, said 19 of the league’s 22 members approved the sanctions, which include freezing government assets, suspending cooperation with Syria’s central bank and halting funding for projects in the country.
Those steps will take effect immediately, Jassim said. Other sanctions, including a travel ban on high-ranking Syrian officials and the suspension of flights to the country, are to follow after a committee works out details.