Hamad bin Jassim

BEIRUT — In an unprecedented move against an Arab nation, the Arab League on Sunday approved economic sanctions on Syria to pressure Damascus to end its deadly suppression of an 8-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad.

But even as world leaders abandon Assad, the regime has refused to ease a military assault on dissent that already has killed more than 3,500 people. On Sunday, Damascus slammed the sanctions as a betrayal of Arab solidarity and insisted a foreign conspiracy was behind the revolt, all but assuring more bloodshed will follow.

The sanctions are among the clearest signs yet of the isolation Syria is suffering because of the crackdown. Damascus has long boasted of being a powerhouse of Arab nationalism, but Assad has been abandoned by some of his closest allies and now his Arab neighbors. The growing movement against his regime could transform some of the most enduring alliances in the Middle East and beyond.

At a news conference in Cairo, Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim said 19 of the League’s 22 member nations approved a series of tough punishments that include cutting off transactions with the Syrian central bank, halting Arab government funding for projects in Syria and freezing government assets. Those sanctions are to take effect immediately.

Other steps, including halting flights and imposing travel bans on some, as-yet unnamed Syrian officials, will come later after a committee reviews them.

“The Syrian people are being killed but we don’t want this. Every Syrian official should not accept killing even one person,” bin Jassim said. “Power is worth nothing while you stand as an enemy to your people.”

He added that the League aims to “to avoid any suffering for the Syrian people.”

Iraq and Lebanon — important trading partners for Syria — abstained from the vote, which came after Damascus missed an Arab League deadline to agree to allow hundreds of observers into the country as part of a peace deal Syria agreed to early this month to end the crisis.

Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby said the bloc will reconsider the sanctions if Syria carries out the Arab-brokered plan, which includes pulling tanks from the streets and ending violence against civilians.

The regime, however, has shown no signs of easing its crackdown, and activist groups said more than 30 people were killed Sunday. The death toll was impossible to confirm. Syria has banned most foreign journalists and prevented independent reporting inside the country.

The Local Coordinating Committees, a coalition of Syrian activist groups, praised the sanctions but called for a mechanism to ensure compliance.

“The sanctions leave open the opportunity for the regime to commit fraud and strip the sanctions of any substance, thereby prolonging the suffering of the Syrian people at the hands of an oppressive and brutal regime,” the group said.

The Arab League move is the latest in a growing wave of international pressure pushing Damascus to end its crackdown. The European Union and the United States already have imposed sanctions, the League has suspended Syria’s membership and world leaders increasingly are calling on Assad to go. But as the crisis drags on, the violence appears to be spiraling out of control as attacks by army defectors increase and some protesters take up arms to protect themselves.

Syria has seen the bloodiest crackdown against the Arab Spring’s eruption of protests, and has descended into a deadly grind. Though internationally isolated, Assad appears to have a firm grip on power with the loyalty of most of the armed forces, which in the past months have moved from city to city to put down uprisings. In each place, however, protests have resumed.

The escalating bloodshed has raised fears of civil war — a worst-case scenario in a country that is a geographical and political keystone in the heart of the Middle East.

Syria borders five countries with whom it shares religious and ethnic minorities and, in Israel’s case, a fragile truce. Its web of allegiances extends to Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement and Iran’s Shiite theocracy. Chaos in Syria could send unsettling ripples across the region.

For now, Assad still has a strong bulwark to prevent his meeting the same fate as the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia or Libya anytime soon. His key advantages are the support of Russia and China, fear among many Syrians about a future without Assad, and the near-certainty that foreign militaries will stay away.

But the unrest is eviscerating the economy, threatening the business community and prosperous merchant classes that are key to propping up the regime. An influential bloc, the business leaders have long traded political freedoms for economic privileges.

The opposition has tried to rally these largely silent, but hugely important, sectors of society. But Assad’s opponents have failed so far to galvanize support in Damascus and Aleppo — the two economic centers in Syria.

Sunday’s sanctions, however, could chip away at their resolve.

Since the revolt began, the regime has blamed the bloodshed on terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy to divide and undermine Syria. The bloodshed has laid bare Syria’s long-simmering sectarian tensions, with disturbing reports of Iraq-style sectarian killings.

Syria is an overwhelmingly Sunni country of 22 million, but Assad and the ruling elite belong to the minority Alawite sect. Assad, and his father before him, stacked key military posts with Alawites to meld the fates of the army and the regime — a tactic aimed at compelling the army to fight to the death to protect the Assad family dynasty.

Until recently, most of the bloodshed was caused by security forces firing on mainly peaceful protests. Lately, there have been growing reports of army defectors and armed civilians fighting Assad’s forces — a development that some say plays into the regime’s hands by giving government troops a pretext to crack down with overwhelming force.

Moroccans and Syrian expatriates gesture as they hold a Syrian during a protest in solidarity with the Syrian people, in Rabat Morocco, outside the Moroccan foreign ministry as the Arab League foreign ministers meet in Rabat, Morocco on Wednesday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

RABAT, Morocco — The Arab League confirmed the suspension of Syria from the organization on Wednesday and gave its government three days to halt the violence and accept an observer mission or face economic sanctions.

The suspension — first announced by the Arab League on Saturday and confirmed during the meeting — is a surprisingly harsh and highly unusual move for a member of Syria’s standing.

Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim told reporters following the daylong meeting in Rabat, Morocco, that Syria is being offered the chance to end the violence against civilians and implement a peace plan that the Arab League outlined on Nov. 2. The U.N. estimates that more than 3,500 people have been killed in Syria’s 8-month-old uprising.

“The Syrian government has to sign the protocol sent by the Arab League and end all violence against demonstrators,” he said, adding that it has three days. “Economic sanctions are certainly possible, if the Syrian government does not respond. But we are conscious that such sanctions would touch the Syrian people.”

The protocol calls for an observer mission of 30-50 members under the auspices of the Arab League to ensure that Syria is following the Arab plan, calling for the regime to halt its attacks on protesters, pull tanks and armored vehicles out of cities, release political prisoners, and allow journalists and rights groups into the country.

The protocol did not specifically say if Syria’s suspension from the organization has remained in force, but an official from the Moroccan Foreign Ministry confirmed that is the case. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk with the media.

The Arab League also demanded the withdrawal of Syria’s representative to the organization.

“In the light of insulting and undiplomatic words of the permanent Syrian representative, the Arab League is asking the Syrian government to withdraw its representative,” said the League statement, without identifying the behavior in question.

The Arab League has rarely taken decisive actions to deal with crises in the Arab world out of reluctance to criticize fellow governments. But in this case, several members have described their forceful engagement in the Syrian situation as a way of staving off the kind of foreign intervention that took place in Libya earlier this year. NATO’s bombing campaign against Libya took place less than a month after it was suspended by the Arab League on Feb. 22.

“Arab leaders don’t have a legacy of commenting and interfering in domestic events in Arab countries, so now this is a turning point for the Arab League,” said Gamal Abdel Gawad, a Cairo-based commentator on Arab affairs.

“Arab governments are being exposed to pressure from their public, from the Syrian people and on the international level, so the Arab League has to do something — they can’t keep staying on the sidelines,” he added.

Even Turkey, which once had close ties with Syria, has expressed increasing concern over the situation across the border.

“We denounce the mass murder of the Syrian people,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who was in Morocco for a meeting on Arab-Turkish ties. “It is all of our responsibility to end the bloodshed in Syria.”

Bin Jassim of Qatar declined to give any details about possible economic sanctions against Syria, if it refuses the observer mission. But the Arab news channel al-Arabiya suggested they would likely take place in coordination with Turkey and include the energy sector.

Its suspension from the Arab League has enraged Syria, which considers itself a bastion of Arab nationalism. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem boycotted Wednesday’s meeting.

The threat of Arab sanctions comes on top of rising threats of sanctions from European countries and the United States as well leaving Syria even more isolated.

Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Araby confirmed that the organization has been in touch with the Syrian opposition and said it has identified 16 regions in particular that needed to be monitored.

“We have spoken with the Syrian opposition on all topics, but they never requested weapons,” he added.

Printed on Thursday, November 17, 2011 as: Arab League acknowledges Syria's suspension