Nov. 28 (Bloomberg) -- The Arab League imposed unprecedented sanctions on Syria, including a freeze on financial assets in Arab countries and a travel ban on senior officials, after it failed to stop its crackdown on protesters.
The measures also will halt dealings with the Syrian central bank, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jasim Bin Jaber Al Thani told reporters yesterday in Cairo. The Arab League banned financial transactions and trade with the Syrian government, excluding basic commodities, he said. The measures were imposed after Syria refused to admit Arab observers.
President Bashar al-Assad, 46, is under economic and political pressure to end an eight-month crackdown against demonstrators, inspired by popular movements that toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The violence has moved the country closer to a civil war as military personnel defect and take up arms against the government.
“Sanctions may put more pressure on Assad, but he will continue his current crackdown as is unless something really big happens,” Paul Sullivan, a political scientist specializing in Middle East security at Georgetown University in Washington, said in an e-mailed response to questions. “It has all the indications of a fall into civil war.”
The United Nations estimates that at least 3,500 people have been killed since the start of the protests in mid-March. Thirty-one people were killed by security forces yesterday, al-Jazeera television reported, citing activists. Syrian soldiers opened fire on a family as they tried to enter Jordan late yesterday, the Jordan Times reported today, citing Rakan Majali, Jordan’s minister for media affairs.
Iraq, Lebanon Abstain
The economic sanctions are the first the Arab League has imposed on a member state since its formation in 1945. In 1979, the league suspended Egypt’s membership after President Anwar Sadat signed a peace agreement with Israel. It reinstated the North African nation in 1989.
Syrian neighbors Iraq and Lebanon abstained from voting on yesterday’s decision. The sanctions were drafted to target Syrian officials and aren’t intended to hurt the Syrian people, Sheikh Hamad said.
The opposition Syrian National Council posted a statement on its Facebook page calling the sanctions “a defeat for the Syrian regime and an important step to isolate it and stop the supplies that feed its criminal war against peaceful protesters.”
The imposition of the measures was “unprecedented,” Syrian state TV said after the decision was announced.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters in Beijing today that “China believes that the Syrian issue should be solved within the framework of the Arab League” and didn’t say whether it would go along with the League sanctions.
Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, has moved to ease Syria’s economic isolation and encourage foreign investment. He had encouraged private industry in Syria’s state-dominated economy to provide long-term financing for development and economic reforms.
“Syria is a trading nation and they are natural capitalists,” Andrew Tabler, a Syria analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in response to e-mailed questions. “The businessmen in that country will never tolerate being cut off to such a degree. This move will get the business elite off the fence and against the regime.”
Syria’s $60 billion economy, which expanded 5.5 percent in 2010, may shrink 2 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Banque Saudi Fransi, a Saudi lender part-owned by Credit Agricole SA, said on Nov. 26 that it will sell its 27 percent stake in bank Bemo Saudi Fransi Syria, citing “the financial risks” in the country.
The Arab League suspended Syria, a founding member, for its handling of the unrest about two weeks ago. It was the boldest action by the organization since its condemnation of Muammar Qaddafi’s repression of protests paved the way for the United Nations resolution in March authorizing a North Atlantic Treaty Organization campaign that ended after Qaddafi’s death.
Sectarian divisions in Syria, where the Alawite minority has ruled over a Sunni Muslim majority since the Assad dynasty took power in 1970, have come to underlie political tensions in the country. In 1982, Assad’s father crushed a rebellion led by Sunni militants in the city of Hama, killing at least 10,000 people according to estimates cited by Human Rights Watch.
“The Arab League also sees real trouble if Syria falls into a full civil war,” Sullivan said. “The closeness of Assad’s regime to Iran, and Iran’s support of them during this brutal time in Syria, worry and irritate many Sunni leaders in the region.”
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