Syrian President Bashar al-Assad faced renewed pressure to end his government’s deadly five-month crackdown against protesters after three Arab countries withdrew their ambassadors from Damascus and Turkey said it was preparing to send a “decisive” message to its neighbor.
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain recalled their envoys yesterday, a day after Syrian troops backed by tanks killed more than 100 people in assaults on towns across the country. Activists estimate the death toll at more than 2,200 since protests began in mid-March, inspired by the revolts that ousted the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt. The Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council condemned Assad’s policies, urging him to meet demands for political change.
Arab criticism of Syria “could have an impact on the Assad regime, it makes it increasingly isolated,” Chris Phillips, a London-based analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said in a telephone interview. “That will increase the leverage that Saudi and Turkey have over Syria and might pressure it into making concessions.”
Turkey will relate its views in a “decisive” manner to Syrian officials during a meeting today, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Aug. 6. His country had “reached the last stretch of patience” with its neighbor, he said. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu will meet Assad in Damascus today, said an official, who declined to be identified because of ministry guidelines.
The GCC, which called on Aug. 6 for “an immediate cessation to all acts of violence,” will also meet soon to discuss Syria, Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed Al-Sabah said yesterday. The group comprises the six Sunni Muslim-ruled monarchies of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which is a rival for regional power with Shiite Muslim-led Iran, Syria’s main ally.
Saudi Arabia “demands an end to the killing machine and bloodshed, and asks for reason to prevail before it is too late,” King Abdullah said in a statement to announce the recall of his ambassador.
Many countries “will interpret King Abdullah’s remarks as permission for stronger action against Syria,” said Dawood al-Shirian, a political analyst and editor-in-chief of Alarabiya.net.
Syrian forces have launched attacks in towns and cities including Hama and Deir al-Zour in central Syria, as well Maarat al-Numan in the northern province of Idlib, in the past week. Tanks, machine guns and armored vehicles were used in the assault on Deir al-Zour, Mahmoud Merhi, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, said by telephone from Damascus.
Activists say demonstrations on the past three Fridays have drawn at least 1 million people, many now invigorated by the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. In Syria, as in other mostly Islamic countries, family and community groups gather to break the daily Ramadan fast after sunset, and people attend prayers at mosques more often than at other times.
Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, Sunni Islam’s highest seat of learning, said in a statement that the situation “has gone too far,” and called for an end to “this Arab and Islamic tragedy,” according to Egypt’s state-run Middle East News Agency.
“The widespread oppression, violence, arrests and intimidation that the Syrian people are subjected to represent a human tragedy that cannot be accepted,” MENA cited the imam as saying yesterday. “Blood only fuels revolutions.”
Syria said its army began withdrawing from the central city of Hama, a focus of anti-government protests, after “accomplishing” its mission of restoring normality there, state-run SANA news agency said. Assad appointed a new defense minister, Dawoud Rajhah, Al Arabiya television reported yesterday, without saying how it obtained the information.
Assad, who came to power in 2000, has blamed the protests on foreign-inspired plots. More than 500 members of the security forces have been killed, according to the government.
The United Nations Security Council issued a statement Aug. 3, expressing “grave concern” at the deaths and human-rights abuses in Syria. Stronger action, such as a resolution condemning the crackdown, has been backed by the U.S. and its European allies, and blocked by countries including Russia.
The U.S. was “heartened” by Saudi Arabia’s withdrawal of its ambassador from Syria, said State Department spokesman Mark Toner. The message to Assad is that he “has fewer and fewer friends,” Toner told reporters in Washington yesterday.