Arab League suspends Syria over protester killings

By Hannah Allam and Mohannad al Sabry
McClatchy Newspapers

CAIRO_ After months of indecision on a response to the bloodshed in Syria, the Arab League on Saturday suspended Syria's participation and sought other extraordinary censures that reflect the shifting politics of the region after this year's Arab uprisings.
The decision to freeze Syrian delegates' activities stopped just short of full membership suspension. In addition, the Arab League warned of political and economic sanctions, urged Arab states to withdraw their envoys from Damascus, and called on Syrian forces to reject orders to fire on the protesters revolting against President Bashar Assad's authoritarian rule.
"We were criticized for taking a long time, but this was out of our concern for Syria," Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al Thani, who led the committee on Syria, told reporters in Cairo. "We needed to have a majority to approve those decisions."
The 22-member, Cairo-based Arab League surprised political observers with Saturday's measures, which went well beyond what anyone had expected from a body long regarded as calcified and toothless. Analysts used words such as "watershed" and "historic" as they parsed the announcement on Twitter.
Few predicted a chastened response from the defiant Assad, whose regime is accused of killing more than 3,500 protesters since mid-March; but the landmark move does show the extent of Assad's isolation in the changing Middle East.
Countries such as Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, where revolts have toppled heads of state, were eager to show solidarity with the Syrian protesters. Arab states in the Persian Gulf, meanwhile, are locked in a battle with Iran, Assad's main backer, for regional influence, especially in conflict areas including Iraq and the Palestinian territories.
Analysts said the league's decision Saturday was equal parts punishment for Assad and provocation for Iran.
"This decision finally kicked Iran out of our Arab nation," said Abdulla al Athbah, a Qatari columnist for Al Arab newspaper in Doha. "This is for the protection of the Syrian people, but at the same time the result is a message to Assad and Iran that Syrians won't accept (indirect) rule by the Iranian regime."
While Arab League delegates stressed that the group's crisis talks on Syria didn't include discussion of a no-fly zone, analysts said the penalties against Syria could be interpreted as laying the groundwork for that option.
The Arab League's endorsement of a no-fly zone over Libya was crucial for authorizing the NATO operation that paved the way for rebels to topple Moammar Gadhafi. So far, neither the Arab world nor Washington has expressed the political will for a no-fly zone over Syria, but that could change if Assad continues to flout international demands or if the crisis evolves into all-out civil war.
The violence has only worsened despite harsh international sanctions, near-universal condemnation and an unprecedented rejection of autocratic rule in the Arab Spring uprisings. World leaders including President Barack Obama have demanded Assad's ouster.
Obama on Saturday praised the Arab League and promised to work with other countries to put pressure on Assad.
"After the Assad regime flagrantly failed to keep its commitments, the Arab League has demonstrated leadership in its effort to end the crisis and hold the Syrian government accountable. These significant steps expose the increasing diplomatic isolation of a regime that has systematically violated human rights and repressed peaceful protests," Obama said in a statement.

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