Arab League suspends Syria, calls for talks on transition with Assad opponents

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 12, 2011 

CAIRO_ After months of indecision on a response to the bloodshed in Syria, the Arab League on Saturday suspended Syria's participation and sought other extraordinary censures that reflect the shifting politics of the region after this year's Arab uprisings.

The decision to freeze Syrian delegates' activities stopped just short of full membership suspension. In addition, the Arab League warned of political and economic sanctions, urged Arab states to withdraw their envoys from Damascus, and called on Syrian forces to reject orders to fire on the protesters revolting against President Bashar Assad's authoritarian rule.

"We were criticized for taking a long time, but this was out of our concern for Syria," Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al Thani, who led the committee on Syria, told reporters in Cairo. "We needed to have a majority to approve those decisions."

The 22-member, Cairo-based Arab League surprised political observers with Saturday's measures, which went well beyond what anyone had expected from a body long regarded as calcified and toothless. Analysts used words such as "watershed" and "historic" as they parsed the announcement on Twitter.

Few predicted a chastened response from the defiant Assad, whose regime is accused of killing more than 3,500 protesters since mid-March; but the landmark move does show the extent of Assad's isolation in the changing Middle East.

Countries such as Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, where revolts have toppled heads of state, were eager to show solidarity with the Syrian protesters. Arab states in the Persian Gulf, meanwhile, are locked in a battle with Iran, Assad's main backer, for regional influence, especially in conflict areas including Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

Analysts said the league's decision Saturday was equal parts punishment for Assad and provocation for Iran.

"This decision finally kicked Iran out of our Arab nation," said Abdulla al Athbah, a Qatari columnist for Al Arab newspaper in Doha. "This is for the protection of the Syrian people, but at the same time the result is a message to Assad and Iran that Syrians won't accept (indirect) rule by the Iranian regime."

While Arab League delegates stressed that the group's crisis talks on Syria didn't include discussion of a no-fly zone, analysts said the penalties against Syria could be interpreted as laying the groundwork for that option.

The Arab League's endorsement of a no-fly zone over Libya was crucial for authorizing the NATO operation that paved the way for rebels to topple Moammar Gadhafi. So far, neither the Arab world nor Washington has expressed the political will for a no-fly zone over Syria, but that could change if Assad continues to flout international demands or if the crisis evolves into all-out civil war.

The violence has only worsened despite harsh international sanctions, near-universal condemnation and an unprecedented rejection of autocratic rule in the Arab Spring uprisings. World leaders including President Barack Obama have demanded Assad's ouster.

Obama on Saturday praised the Arab League and promised to work with other countries to put pressure on Assad.

"After the Assad regime flagrantly failed to keep its commitments, the Arab League has demonstrated leadership in its effort to end the crisis and hold the Syrian government accountable. These significant steps expose the increasing diplomatic isolation of a regime that has systematically violated human rights and repressed peaceful protests," Obama said in a statement.

Continued unrest in Syria could bring disastrous consequences for the region, given Syria's borders with five tense and strategically important nations: Israel, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

Analysts said discussions of a no-fly zone are the next logical step if Assad continues to ignore his fellow Arab rulers' rebukes.

"Of course, Assad will pay no attention, but the decision in itself is a very important escalation," said Mohamed Farahat, an analyst at the Ahram Center research institute in Cairo. "This is basically the last step that the Arab League could take. What follows will be an international move, which Europe and the United States never could've made before the Arab states opened the door."

Mark Perry, a political analyst and historian monitoring Syria, said he doesn't believe the vote will lead to greater international invention, either by the United States or its allies.

The Obama administration and the Pentagon were deeply divided about intervention in Libya, which went on longer than expected. Other countries that otherwise might get involved, such as France and Italy, are facing their own domestic pressures that would make intervening difficult. In addition, intervention likely would require a U.N. vote, which has yet to happen.

And on top of those obstacles, the United States is entering an election year.

"I still think there is almost zero chance for foreign intervention. Obama had a tough time with service chiefs of staff and the defense secretary in Libya. So not now especially during an election season," Perry said.

All members of the Arab League voted in favor of the censures except Yemen, whose authoritarian regime is near collapse from a similar revolt, and Lebanon, where Iranian-allied Hezbollah is the biggest political power. Iraq, which also has close ties to Iran as well as hundreds of thousands of refugees in Syria, abstained.

After the meeting in Cairo, Syria's Arab League delegate, Yousif al Ahmed, derided the group's leadership as "pigs and traitors," according to news reports.

Syrian protesters massed outside the Arab League headquarters in Cairo during the meeting, chanting, "The people demand the suspension of Syria!" In conversations, however, the protesters said even full suspension wasn't likely to halt Assad's killing machine.

The Arab League called on the Syrian opposition to come to Cairo for talks about visions for the transition, Thani, the Qatari prime minister, said Cairo. Exactly which opposition groups would attend is uncertain, with the opposition fragmented into factions with sharp differences on negotiating with the regime, seeking foreign intervention and taking up arms.

Several of the protesters in Cairo approved of the decision by a growing number of Syrians to take up arms, which they described as the only way to protect themselves in a bloody, lopsided battle.

Assad still has the backing of his military, administration and the business elites. Rallies to support the regime draw thousands of his loyalists. The Syrian military's leadership comes from Assad's own Alawite minority sect, linking their fates and, so far, ensuring loyalty to the regime.

"We need a powerful military intervention, but they'll never do it because we don't have Libyan oil and because of Israel," complained Mohamed Bilal, 32, a Syrian who fled Damascus and lives in Cairo.

"Last week, seven of my neighbors were killed in a peaceful protest, shot at with live ammunition," Bilal said. "Bashar Assad is butchering the Syrian people and no one is reacting. The whole world is turning a blind eye to us."

News reports cite rising death tolls among not just protesters but also Syrian security forces, signaling that at least some protesters already are shooting back. So far, attempts by some Sunni Muslim military defectors to build an armed resistance force have faltered.

Last spring, Syrian activists were eager to keep the moral high ground by rejecting arms. Taking up weapons, they argued, would only give pretext for more violence from Assad's forces.

Now, however, many Syrians are revisiting that stance.

"The only way out of our misery is by fighting against the government," said Mohamed Manaa, 42, a businessman who fled central Syria for Egypt in April. "We should carry weapons and fight this criminal regime and, if that happens, I'll go and fight alongside my brothers."

(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent. Nancy A. Youssef contributed from Washington.)

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