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Syria protests: Arab League consensus paves the way for UN sanctions

After eight months of Syria protests, the Arab League decision to suspend Syria's membership gives regional backing for UN sanctions, which could ease Russian and Chinese opposition.

By Correspondent / November 15, 2011

Yussef al-Ahmad, Syria's ambassador to the Arab League, chairs his delegation during the Arab League emergency session on Syria at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Nov.12. The Arab League has voted to suspend Syria from all meetings until it implements plan to end bloodshed.

Amr Nabil/AP

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Cairo

An emerging Arab consensus against Syria for its brutal assault on a pro-democracy uprising paves the way for broader international pressure on the Assad regime.

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Much like the Arab League support for a Libyan no-fly zone made international action politically possible, Saturday’s vote by the Arab League to suspend Syria's membership in the bloc makes international action more likely.

While the League's members made clear that they were not endorsing military action this time, their public stance against Syria could help turn the tide in a stand-off now entering its ninth month – both by opening the way for United Nations Security Council sanctions and by helping to unite the fragmented Syrian opposition.

“The significance of the Arab League's decision was that it had finally lifted the Arab cover from the Assad regime,” says Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. The addition of regional Arab opposition to Turkish and Western criticism of Syria, he says, will lead to a coalition that "is not only going to seek to pressure and isolate the regime, but will also increasingly be looking at a post-Assad Syria."

Since Saturday’s vote, the European Union has imposed additional sanctions on 18 Syrians it says are responsible for or associated with the regime’s repression. Jordan’s King Abdullah said Monday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should step down. He is the first Arab leader to say so publicly.

Syria’s neighbor and one-time friend Turkey is also ratcheting up the pressure: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday he had lost confidence in Syria’s regime. Turkey’s energy minister, meanwhile, threatened to review its electricity supply to Syria, if Syria does not change course, and said Turkey had canceled oil exploration plans in the country.

At the same time, Syria continued violence against protesters, with activist groups reporting that at least 70 people were killed by security forces in the past day. More than 250 people have been killed so far this month, according to Syrian activists. The UN estimates that more than 3,500 people have died since the uprising began.

'Galvanizing' effect on Syrian opposition

The Arab League’s vote to suspend Syria came after Damascus ignored an agreement with the League to end the violence, instead escalating attacks against civilians almost immediately.

Of the 22-member League, only Yemen and Lebanon voted against the measure, while Iraq abstained. The League also called on its member states to withdraw their ambassadors from Syria, and said it supports sanctions on the Syrian regime and would talk with the Syrian opposition.

Though Syria’s violence has not quelled the uprising, military commanders, businessmen, and many of those from Syria’s religious minorities still support the regime, making an end to the conflict difficult to see. The Arab League decision, however, will help bring pressure to bear on the regime that could eventually help turn the tide, say analysts.

Mr. Shaikh says the League's vote could help unify the Syrian opposition, an important step for providing a credible alternative to the Assad regime as the lack of a unified opposition has been a roadblock for pushing for regime change in Syria. The Arab League decision has already had “a galvanizing and converging effect” on the opposition, he says, noting that they have dropped discussion of dialogue with the regime, which had been a divisive issue for them in recent months. 

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