Syria urges Arab League to reconsider suspension

Iran slams "foreign interference"; Israeli expert: Strike on Syria could be less costly way of weakening Tehran.

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
November 14, 2011 00:33
Pro-Assad protesters in Syria [illustrative]

Pro-Assad protesters in Syria 311 (R). (photo credit: Reuters / Handout)

 
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Syria called Sunday for an emergency summit of Arab League heads of state, an apparent attempt to thwart the organization’s decision to suspend Damascus for its violent eight-month crackdown on anti-government protests.

Iran, meanwhile, called the suspension “unhelpful,” chiding the Cairo-based bloc for helping “foreign powers interfere” in Syrian affairs.

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Syria’s suspension takes effect November 16. The move came after Damascus flouted an Arab League plan to mollify the Syria crisis by ordering a military pullout from cities, release of political prisoners and dialogue between the government and opposition.

A day after the League suspended Syria and said it would impose sanctions, the bloc’s secretary-general said officials from the 22-member organization would also meet Syrian opposition representatives, a further blow to Damascus.

Gabriel Ben-Dor, director of national security studies at the University of Haifa, described the suspension as “unprecedented,” but said the move needs to be backed up by further action.

“The major decisions of the Arab League have to be taken unanimously or they’re not binding,” he said.

Yemen and Lebanon opposed Saturday’s decision, and Iraq abstained.

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Ben-Dor said the decision should also be viewed within the context of Arab and Western attempts to contain an emboldened Iran believed to be pursuing nuclear weapons.

“They’re hoping to dismantle the axis of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, and to somehow weaken this entire coalition, which is a common interest of all major powers of the Arab world,” he told The Jerusalem Post. The Arab bloc’s suspension, he added, “is an attempt to isolate Iran even more by depriving it of its only major ally in the Middle East.”

Ben-Dor said Western military intervention against Syria could be viewed as a way of weakening Iran without incurring the geopolitical and military risks of striking at its nuclear facilities.

“This is being contemplated in several Western capitals as an alternative to military action against Iran,” he said. “The idea is that if you take on Syria, where the regime is on the brink of collapsing anyway, then you isolate Iran further and send it a very forceful message at a very low cost.”

On Sunday, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman described the suspension as “unhelpful” and warned it would exacerbate rather than solve the Syria crisis.

“The issuance of the Arab League statement happened as foreign forces are trying to interfere in the internal affairs of Syria,” Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast was quoted as saying by state broadcaster IRIB. “The ground is prepared for success in the reforms being implemented by the president of Syria and the people of that country.”

On Sunday Syrian security forces shot dead eight people who shouted slogans against President Bashar Assad at a rally that had been organized by authorities in Hama to protest the Arab League decision, activists said.

The United Nations says 3,500 people have been killed since demonstrations began in March.

“Security forces were leading public workers and students into Orontes Square when groups broke away and started shouting ‘the people want the fall of the regime.’ They escaped into the alleyways but were followed and four were killed,” said one of the activists in Hama.

Video posted online shows a group of teenagers who broke away from the rally running for cover down a street as the sound of automatic gunfire is heard. “God damn your soul, Abu Hafez!” some of them shouted, referring to the president.

State television said millions of Syrians denounced the Arab League decision in demonstrations across the country and showed crowds with Syrian flags and posters of Assad in Damascus, Latakia and Tartous.

France, Turkey and Saudi Arabia said their diplomatic premises were attacked by pro-government crowds overnight.

Some 1,000 Assad supporters attacked the Turkish embassy in Damascus on Saturday evening, throwing stones and bottles before Syrian police intervened to break up the protest, Turkey’s state-run Anatolian news agency said.

Turkey, after long courting Assad, has lost patience with its neighbor’s failure to halt the violence and implement promised reforms and now hosts the main Syrian opposition and has given refuge to defecting Syrian soldiers.

Turkey’s foreign minister was to meet Syrian opposition members in Ankara later on Sunday, a clear diplomatic signal of its growing discontent with Damascus.

Turkey called on Syria to guarantee the safety of Turkish diplomats and for those behind the embassy attacks to be prosecuted. Ankara also warned its citizens against non-essential travel to Syria.

Turkey has threatened to impose its own sanctions on Syria since early October but has yet to do so.

Meanwhile, another group of Assad supporters armed with sticks attacked the Saudi Arabian embassy in Damascus.

Residents said hundreds of men shouting slogans in support of Assad beat a guard and broke into the Saudi embassy in Abu Rummaneh, three blocks away from the president’s offices in one of the most heavily policed areas of the capital.

“We sacrifice our blood and our soul for you, Bashar,” the crowd shouted, according to neighborhood residents.

France said it “very firmly” condemned “the systematic destruction of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Damascus” and attacks on its own honorary consulate in Latakia and diplomatic offices in Aleppo. It said the attacks were carried out by groups of demonstrators and security forces did not intervene.

Saudi Arabia, wary of the growing influence of Shi’ite regional power Iran – Syria’s biggest remaining backer – is one of the Arab nations leading the push for stronger measures against Damascus.

Ben-Dor said NATO intervention in Libya – which was preceded by an Arab League suspension of the Libyan government – was likely foremost in the minds of the Arab delegates.

“Arab states are afraid that if they do not take forceful steps someone else will, and then the fall of the regime will be attributed to outside interference rather than the ability of the Arabs to put their own house in order,” he said. “Syria has been making enemies all over the Middle East, and these enemies are ganging up on it now that it’s down.”

Also Sunday, a top US Treasury official held talks with senior Jordanian officials and banking executives on efforts to enforce economic sanctions against Syria.

The EU and US have recently expanded sanctions against Syria to put pressure on Damascus.

Daniel Glaser, the US Treasury Department’s assistant secretary, arrived in Amman after meeting Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh in Beirut.

A US embassy statement said the Treasury official stressed the “need for authorities to protect the Lebanese financial sector from Syrian attempts to evade sanctions.”

Major Lebanese and Jordanian banks have several branches in Syria that were opened in the last six years when the country lifted restrictions on foreign stakes in the banking sector.

The Arab League also plans to impose as yet unspecified economic and political sanctions on Damascus, and has appealed to member states to withdraw their ambassadors.

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