Arab leaders abandon Syria, Assad fires defense minister

Syrian president appoints general Daoud Rajha to replace Ali Habib; Turkey sends top diplomat to Damascus; Syrian forces batter eastern city.

Assad with defense minister and chief of staff 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Sana)
Assad with defense minister and chief of staff 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Sana)
Syrian President Bashar Assad pressed on with a tank onslaught against the eastern Sunni city of Deir al-Zor on Monday, but was plunged deeper into international isolation by Arab neighbors who denounced his violent crackdown and recalled their envoys from Damascus.
Assad fired defense minister Ali Habib on Monday and replaced him with chief of staff Gen. Dawoud Rajha. Habib was added to an EU sanctions list last week for his role in crushing protests, but state news attributed the dismissal to supposed ill health.
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Other Arab leaders had been cautious about criticizing one of their peers, but Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah broke the silence with a rare intervention overnight, demanding an end to the bloodshed and recalling the Saudi ambassador from Damascus. Hours later, Kuwait and Bahrain recalled their envoys too.
Syrian tanks and troops poured into Deir al-Zor in the latest stage of a campaign to crush protests, and forces shot dead at least three mourners on Monday when they opened fire at a funeral for a pro-democracy protester in the southern border city of Deraa, witnesses and activists said.
A resident said at least 65 people had been killed since tanks and armored vehicles barreled into the provincial capital, 400 km. northeast of Damascus, on Sunday, crumpling makeshift barricades and opening fire.
The sudden withdrawal of ambassadors of Gulf Arab states leaves Assad with few diplomatic friends. Western states have imposed sanctions on top Syrian officials and countries with close ties to Damascus such as Russia and Turkey had warned Assad he was running out of time.
The Saudi criticism was the sharpest the oil giant has directed against any fellow Arab state since pro-democracy uprisings began to sweep across the region in January.
“What is happening in Syria is not acceptable for Saudi Arabia,” Abdullah said in a statement read out on Al-Arabiya satellite television.
“Syria should think wisely before it’s too late and issue and enact reforms that are not merely promises but actual reforms,” said the Saudi king, an absolute ruler whose country has no elected parliament. “Either it chooses wisdom on its own or it will be pulled down into the depths of turmoil and loss.”
The assault on Deir al-Zor, in an oil-producing province bordering Iraq, took place a week after tanks stormed the city of Hama, where scores have been killed.
The official SANA news agency said on Monday the military was winding down there.
“Army units assigned to restore security and stability... have started to leave the city after they fulfilled their duty,” it said. “Life is gradually returning to normal.”
But an activist in Hama said there were still tanks in parts of the city and security forces were making arrests.
The Arab League also called for an end to the bloodshed. But its chief said on Monday it would use persuasion rather than “drastic measures” to resolve the conflict. Kuwait ruled out military action against Assad.
The US State Department said it was “heartened” by the Arab condemnation, calling the moves a further sign that the international community is repulsed by Assad’s actions.
France repeated a call for Assad to scrap the military campaign that rights groups say has killed 1,600 civilians.
“The time of impunity is over for the Syrian authorities. This large-scale and bloody repression must stop,” French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Christine Fages said.
Germany said Assad would lose his legitimacy if he did not stop bloodshed.
Hama and Deir al-Zor are both predominately Sunni cities, and the crackdowns there resonate with Sunnis, who form the majority in the region and rule most Arab countries. Hama is known throughout the region as the site of a crackdown by Assad’s father nearly 30 years ago against Sunni Islamists in which many thousands died.
In Cairo, the head of the most influential school of Sunni Islam, Al-Azhar University, described the violence as a human tragedy that had to stop.
“Blood only fuels the fires of revolutions,” Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb said.
Syrian authorities denied that any Deir al- Zor assault had taken place. SANA said “not a single tank has entered Deir al-Zor” and reports of tanks in the city were “the work of provocateur satellite channels.”
State television broadcast footage on Sunday of mutilated bodies floating in the Orontes River in Hama, saying 17 policemen had been ambushed and killed in the central Syrian city. Activists have said protesters’ families – fearing for their safety if they attend funerals – have had no choice but to dump the bodies of slain loved ones into the river.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Sunday, the State Department said, asking him to “reinforce” Washington’s position that Syria must immediately return its military to barracks and release prisoners.