Arab League Bans Travel for 19 Syria Officials Amid Violence

The Arab League ordered a freeze on the assets of 19 Syrian officials, a ban on their travel and a reduction in flights to the nation as security forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad battled protesters and army defectors.

Seventeen people were killed in fighting today, Al-Arabiya television reported, citing anti-government activists. Some of the 25 people killed yesterday died in fighting between security forces and rebels that began in a city near the Turkish border, Al Jazeera said, also citing activists.

Assad faces growing economic and political pressure to end a crackdown against protests that began in mid-March, inspired by movements that toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The violence risks moving Syria closer to civil war as military personnel defect and take up arms against the government.

“As Arabs we’re concerned that if this situation persists events will escape our control,” Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim Al Thani told reporters yesterday.

The travel ban and flight reduction will go ahead if Syria doesn’t comply today with an Arab League plan for releasing political prisoners and admitting international monitors. “We’re waiting for a response,” Sheikh Hamad said.

Syrian officials are negotiating with the Arab League on allowing the observers in, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told reporters today in Damascus. He said messages were being exchanged over a deal that would also preserve Syrian interests and sovereignty.

Travel Ban

Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother, and businessman Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of Assad, are among those who won’t be allowed to travel in Arab League states and whose financial assets in those nations will be frozen, the league said in a statement in the Qatari capital yesterday after a meeting of the group’s foreign ministers.

Half of air travel to and from Syria and Arab League states will be cut starting Dec. 15, the statement said.

Syrian Interior Minister Mohamad Ibrahim al-Shaar called the Arab League decisions “unfair” and said at a police graduation ceremony yesterday that the measures serve U.S. and Israeli interests, state-run SANA news agency reported.

He said Syria’s campaign to arrest “armed terrorist groups” continues, according to SANA. Syrian officials have said their crackdown is targeting foreign-backed Muslim radicals bent on destabilizing the country.

‘Economic War’

Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem on Nov. 29 called Arab League sanctions against his country, which were adopted on Nov. 27, a declaration of “economic war.” They included a halt to dealings with the central bank.

The UN Human Rights Council’s independent commission of inquiry last week said its probe found that Syrian military and security forces had committed “gross violations of human rights.” The commission, which interviewed 223 “victims and witnesses,” said it is “gravely concerned that crimes against humanity have been committed” throughout Syria.

The UN estimates that at least 4,000 people have been killed since the start of the protests, while human-rights activists put the figure at more than 4,500.

Arab League measures follow U.S. and European sanctions.

Syria’s $60 billion economy, which grew 5.5 percent in 2010, may shrink 2 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund, or at least 5 percent, according to the Institute of International Finance. The government expects growth of 1 percent, Finance Minister Mohammad Al-Jleilati said in September.

Economic Sanctions

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.

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.

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 the Bemo Saudi Fransi Syria bank, citing “the financial risks” in the country.

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