CAIRO (Reuters) – The Arab League called on Syria’s army to stop the killing of civilians on Saturday and said it was suspending Syria from the regional body in a surprise move that turns up the heat on President Bashar al-Assad.
The League will impose economic and political sanctions on Assad’s government and has appealed to its member states to withdraw their ambassadors from Damascus, said Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim.
“We were criticized for taking a long time but this was out of our concern for Syria,” he told reporters in Cairo. “We needed to have a majority to approve those decisions.”
“We are calling all Syrian opposition parties to a meeting at the Arab League headquarters to agree a unified vision for the transitional period,” Jassim said.
He said the suspension of Syria from the League would take effect on November 16.
Hopes among Western powers that Assad would be isolated by his Arab neighbors were repeatedly dashed until now.
Some Arab leaders have been reluctant to turn against one of their peers given the message it might send to their own restive populations, diplomats say.
But Assad has pressed ahead with the military crackdown despite an Arab peace plan brokered on November 2. The United Nations says 3,500 people have now been killed in seven months of violence.
Jassim held out the possibility that the Arab League could call on the United Nations to help protect the rights of Syrians.
“If the violence and killing doesn’t stop, the Secretary General will call on international organizations dealing with human rights, including the United Nations,” he said.
Since the Arab peace deal, Syrian security forces have killed more than 100 people in Homs, Human Rights Watch said on Friday, and indignation at perceived dithering by Syria’s neighbors has grown.
As Arab foreign ministers gathered in Cairo ahead of the announcement, some 100 protesters shouted “Bashar goes out, Syria is free” and waved flags and banners reading: “The people want international protection.”
“Bashar is a butcher who is doomed to fail. Enough silence over what is happening,” said demonstrator Safaa Youssef, a 25-year-old Yemeni woman studying in Cairo. “We are here to help rescue our Syrian brethren who are dying every day.”
The head of Syria’s Arab League delegation, Youssef el-Ahmed, said earlier on Saturday that the army had begun withdrawing from cities and condemned the United States for “provocative interference” in his country’s internal affairs.