BEIRUT — The Arab League approved on Saturday a sweeping package of measures censuring Syria, clearing the way for a significant escalation of international pressure against President Bashar al-Assad and deepening the isolation of his increasingly embattled government.
The 22-member regional body said it would suspend Syria’s membership, impose sanctions and seek U.N. help unless the Syrian government stops using violence to suppress the country’s eight-month-old uprising. At least 3,500 civilians have died in the crackdown, according to the United Nations.
The Arab League also summoned opposition leaders to a meeting within the next three days to formulate “a unified view of the coming transitional period,” offering the clearest indication yet the region is moving closer to the Obama administration position that he should step down.
The unexpectedly severe measures suggested that Arab states are already starting to plan for a post-Assad era. That will in turn increase pressure on other powers that have so far refrained from taking action against Syria, notably Russia, China and Turkey, opening the door to the kind of international consensus on Syria that the United States has been seeking to build, analysts said.
“This is a diplomatic game-changer,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “It’s a significant moment that foretells greater international isolation and pressure on the Assad regime.”
In Washington, President Obama issued a statement hailing the Arab move as evidence of “the increasing diplomatic isolation of a regime that has systematically violated human rights.”
The resolution adopted at an emergency meeting in Cairo represented a rare display of Arab solidarity against a fellow regional power, marking only the third time a nation has been suspended. Egypt was ejected from 1979 to 1989 for signing a peace treaty with Israel, and Libya was suspended in March after the uprising there.
Just two countries voted against the measures, Yemen and Lebanon, with Iraq abstaining, demonstrating the extent of Syria’s isolation in the Arab world. The sanctions will be discussed at a ministerial meeting in the coming days, and the league said it would consider granting recognition to the Syrian National Council, an umbrella opposition body that has struggled to be accepted by the international community.
The suspension is to take effect Wednesday, giving Syria a small window in which to implement an Arab League peace plan that had called for the withdrawal of troops from cities and a halt to attacks on protesters. The details of the proposed sanctions will be discussed at a meeting in the coming days, the league said.
“Syria is a dear country for all of us, and it pains us to make this decision,” Qatar’s prime minister, Sheik Hamad Bin Jasim al-Thani, told reporters in Cairo. “We hope there will be a brave move from Syria to stop the violence and begin a real dialogue toward real reform.”
But after flouting the terms of the agreement for the past 10 days, launching a new offensive against the central city of Homs and killing more than 250 people nationwide, Syria seemed unlikely to suddenly pull back its forces, activists said. As protesters surged onto the streets of Syrian cities to stage demonstrations hailing the Arab League’s decision, the Local Coordination Committees, a group that monitors and supports protests, said 18 more civilians were killed.
In Damascus, angry Assad supporters throwing stones and carrying sticks and knives attacked and damaged the Saudi Arabian Embassy, according to the kingdom’s Washington mission and news agency reports.
On Sunday, tens of thousands of Syrians swarmed into central squares in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo to protest the decision, offering a reminder Assad can still count on significant support despite the uprising challenging his rule.
Syria’s government was defiant, accusing the Arab League of bowing to American interests and warning of unspecified “consequences on the whole region.”
“It’s obvious that they’re following the U.S. agenda,” said Syria’s Arab League representative, Yousef Ahmad, according to the Syrian news agency SANA.
Lifting Arab ‘cover’
The measures mark a significant setback for the Assad government, which has until now confidently boasted that regional and world powers won’t dare take meaningful action against Syria because of the potentially destabilizing impact of regime change in the strategically located and religiously mixed country.
And until now, Arab states have indeed seemed hesitant to criticize Syria. The Arab League did not meet to discuss the spiraling violence until August, five months after the protests erupted, and Saturday’s measures came only after weeks of deliberation, deadlines and unfulfilled promises by the Assad government.