King Abdullah of Jordan has called on Bashar Assad to step down, becoming the first Arab leader to explicitly ask for the embattled Syrian leader’s resignation.

“I believe, if I were in his shoes, I would step down,” the Jordanian monarch said in comments quoted by the BBC. “I would step down and make sure whoever comes behind me has the ability to change the status quo that we’re seeing.”

RELATED:
Arab League suspends Syria, calls for halt to violence
Analysis: Assad isolated, West intervention unlikely

Abdullah’s comments followed remarks by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al- Moualem that Damascus would not significantly change its behavior despite its suspension on Saturday from the Arab League.

The Arab bloc also called on member states to withdraw their ambassadors from Syria, and said new economic and political sanctions would be put into effect later this week.

“The decision of the Arab League to suspend Syria represents a dangerous step,” Moualem told reporters in Damascus, denouncing the move as “shameful.”

“Today there is a crisis in Syria that pays the price of its strong positions. Syria will not budge and will emerge stronger... and plots against Syria will fail,” he said.

The foreign minister accused Washington of “encouraging acts of violence” in convincing regime opponents not to surrender in response to an offer to hand in their weapons in return for amnesty. “We were puzzled and surprised by this foreign interference,” he said.

At least 40 Syrians were killed in fighting on Monday between forces loyal to Assad and insurgents in a town near the border with Jordan, local activists said, in the first case of major armed resistance to Assad in the region.

They said troops backed by armor killed 20 people – army defectors, insurgents and civilians – in an assault on Khirbet Ghazaleh in the Hauran Plain, and in fighting that ensued near the town. A similar number of troops were killed, they added.

The troops attacked Khirbet Ghazaleh, 20 km north of the border, on the main highway between Amman and Damascus, after army defectors attacked a security police bus at a highway intersection near the town, the activists said.

“Members of the (defectors’) brigade fought back when the army attacked and bedouin from nearby villages also rushed to help Khirbet Ghazaleh,” said one of the activists, who gave his name as Abu Hussein.

The Hauran Plain, an area of flat farmland that also borders the Golan Heights, was the first outlying area to erupt in street protests against Assad’s rule at the start of the uprising in March. Tanks and troops have been deployed across the region to crush the revolt since then.

In a move showing an increased tough stance against Damascus, European Union states agreed on Monday to extend sanctions against 18 more members of the Syrian regime. However, at the same time Russia continued to flatly oppose tougher measures against the Damascus government.

Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former ambassador to Washington and chief negotiator with Syria, said the Arab League suspension was a significant milestone in applying international pressure to both Syria and Iran.

“The decision embarrasses everybody else – the Arab League has generally been taken to be a toothless entity, and suddenly it took a very courageous and assertive stance on this, probably under Saudi or Gulf leadership,” he said.

“With this action they put to shame the Europeans and Americans, and have also lent encouragement to the Syrian opposition.”

Arab states, Rabinovich said, “see Syria as a very important arena of confrontation with Iran. The Saudis and Qataris are not candidates for attacking Iran’s nuclear installations, but they can hurt Iran considerably by taking away its Syrian ally and base.”

Arab states stopped short of calling for international military action against Assad’s government, and several EU foreign ministers reiterated Western reluctance to get involved in another conflict after a seven-month campaign in Libya that helped anti-government protesters topple Muammar Gaddafi.

“This is a different situation from Libya,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said. “There is no United Nations Security Council resolution and Syria is a much more complex situation.”

Rabinovich agreed that military intervention in Syria was unlikely at present.

“Libya was an easy choice; here it’s not an easy choice. Syria has a very significant military and the danger of entanglement is considerable,” he said. “Everyone believes there are ways of toppling the regime, maybe not overnight, but in ways that are short of military intervention – namely sanctions, or what the Arab League has done.

“The problem is that if you want to impose sanctions through the UN Security Council, you need to think about the Russian and Chinese veto,” Rabinovich said. “If the Americans and Europeans want real sanctions against Syria – and against Iran – this needs to be done outside the framework of the Security Council, and that’s a major decision to take.”

Russia joined forces with China in October to veto a Westernbacked Security Council resolution that would have condemned Syria’s crackdown. Russia has deep economic and military ties with Syria, and is in talks to use a Soviet- era naval base in Tartus to expand its presence in the Mediterranean.

On Monday, Russia condemned the Arab League move as “wrong.”

“We believe it is wrong to suspend Syria’s membership of the Arab League,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a flight back to Moscow from a Pacific Rim summit in Hawaii. “Those who made this decision have lost a very important opportunity to shift the situation into a more transparent channel,” said Lavrov, who accused Western nations of “inciting” Assad opponents.

Also on Monday, Turkey said it would help galvanize a worldwide campaign to help stem the bloodshed in Syria, and the government of Syria could no longer be trusted after a series of apparently regimeorganized attacks on diplomatic missions in the country.

“Turkey’s policy on this issue is open and clear. We will stand by the people’s just demands and we will mobilize the necessary regional and international platforms to counter this Syrian pressure,” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the Turkish parliament. “We will take the most resolute stance against these attacks and we will stand by the Syrian people’s rightful struggle.”

Ankara, after long courting Assad, has lost patience with its neighbor’s failure to end an eightmonth crackdown and implement promised democratic reforms. Turkey now hosts the main Syrian opposition and has given refuge to defecting Syrian soldiers, and Davutoglu on Monday praised the Arab League suspension.

But Claire Berlinski, an Istanbulbased journalist and academic, said Ankara’s economic problems precluded it from playing a significant role in dealing with the crisis.

“Turkey can’t play the role the world is assigning to it. It’s a developing country with huge problems of its own,” she said by e-mail. “The economy may be ‘booming’ by international standards, but everyone knows a crash is coming.”

Berlinski added that the euro zone crisis could well spread to Turkey, further destabilizing the country’s vulnerable economy.

Turkish authorities, she said, “need to look as if they’re on the right side with Syria, and they obviously want to look as if they’re on the American side, whatever it is. But they can’t afford to be adventurous. And frankly, I don’t blame them.”

Tuesday marks the eight-month mark of the Syrian uprising, in which the United Nations estimates more than 3,500 protesters have been killed.

Reuters contributed to this report.

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger