The Arab League gave Syria three days to end bloodshed and allow observers in or face economic sanctions, as the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad escalates with attacks by defectors from his army.
“We shall stop wasting time,” Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jasim Al Thani said during a news conference after the Arab League meeting late yesterday in Rabat, Morocco, to discuss Syria. “If there aren’t any effective measures immediately to stop the killing and release detainees, sanctions will be imposed.” He didn’t specify the measures.
The eight-month revolt against Assad’s rule has begun to splinter the army, squeeze the economy and weaken support for Assad among erstwhile backers. King Abdullah of Jordan has signaled that Assad should step down, and the Arab League yesterday confirmed Syria’s suspension until it withdraws tanks from cities, frees detained protesters and starts supervised talks with the opposition. It said Syria’s problems should be resolved without foreign intervention.
A force made up of former soldiers and known as the Free Syrian Army assaulted a base near Damascus linked to Air Force Intelligence yesterday, destroying an armored personnel carrier, Ammar al-Wawi, a defector who is among its leaders, said by phone from an undisclosed location.
The Arab League’s suspension of Syria came after the group accused Assad of failing to abide by a League plan to end the violence. The group now plans to send observers to the country to monitor violence. Russia and China have blocked efforts by the U.S. and European governments at the United Nations to pass a Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian crackdown.
Russia supports the Arab League initiative to send observers, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow today. He called for an end to violence by government and opposition forces. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking in Istanbul, accused Assad’s government of breaking its promise to reform, and said restoring stability to Syria is central to the stability of the Middle East.
The Free Syrian Army says more than 25,000 officers and soldiers have defected to join it. The upsurge in violence has included ambushes targeting Assad’s forces.
Attacks by defectors this week have killed 34 government soldiers, mostly in the southern province of Daraa where the unrest began, Mahmoud Merei, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, said by phone from Cairo today.
Turkish intervention in Syria could be acceptable as long as it aims to protect the Syrian public, Mohammed Riad al- Shaqfa, the exiled secretary-general of the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, told reporters at a conference in Istanbul today, according to Hurriyet. “We can expect more from our neighbor Turkey,” al-Shaqfa said, according to the Istanbul- based newspaper.
Syria faces a deepening internal conflict if Assad doesn’t give way to an “all-inclusive transitional government,” said Ribal al-Assad, 36, a cousin of the Syrian leader who heads the London-based Organisation for Democracy and Freedom in Syria. “If not, there is going to be a civil war,” he said.
The increasing violence is the fault of the Assad government, said U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner. “It is the brutal tactics of Assad and his regime in dealing with what began as a nonviolent movement that is now taking Syria down a very dangerous path,” he said yesterday in Washington.
The country’s economy is also being squeezed. It’s likely to shrink 2 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Assad’s policy of boosting subsidies and state salaries, as he seeks to shore up support, is “unsustainable,” said Chris Phillips, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London. Public finances were already weak and “it’s starker now,” he said. “Because of the crisis, the government can’t attract any foreign investment, and it will put additional pressure on the pound.”
Syria’s currency has dropped almost 6 percent against the dollar this year, according to Bloomberg data. The central bank has spent $3 billion from a $5 billion contingency fund to defend it, Governor Adib Mayaleh said last month. The Damascus Securities Exchange Index has slumped 52 percent in dollar terms this year, compared with drops of 20 percent and 15 percent on the benchmarks of neighboring Lebanon and Jordan.
The growing international condemnation of Assad’s government has sparked attacks by his supporters on diplomatic missions in Syria.
France is withdrawing its ambassador, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said yesterday during a parliamentary debate in Paris. The embassies of Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar were attacked yesterday, Al Arabiya television reported.
The U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, who left the country last month after his car was attacked by a crowd while he was visiting an opposition lawyer, is due to return to Damascus next week, Toner said.
More than 4,500 protesters have been killed since the unrest broke out in mid-March, according to Merei and Ammar Qurabi, head of the Syrian National Organization for Human Rights.
Assad has blamed foreign provocateurs and Islamic militants for the violence. Syria says it has freed more than 1,700 detained protesters this month.
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