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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.

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Easing Russian, Chinese opposition to sanctions?

The Arab League vote will also better the chances that the UN Security Council will take action to impose sanctions on the regime. Russia and China, both trading partners with Syria, vetoed an October UNSC resolution condemning the Syrian crackdown. If a new resolution is presented, they will now have less cover for blocking it.

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The Arab League move “puts a little bit more pressure on the Russians and Chinese,” says Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation. “They are more out of step with the region than before. They can't now claim that there is no regional consensus.”

Mr. Hanna says the Arab League vote can make a real difference.

“It signifies greater regional isolation, and not just on a symbolic level ... [but] on a realized actual level," he says. I think it does put pressure on other actors to act as well and creates a great possibility for consensus on next steps with Turks and Europeans and Americans.”

Saudi Arabia moves to counter Iran's influence

Saturday’s vote came as a surprise to many observers, and even to many of the Syrian protesters who had gathered outside the Arab League building to urge Arab leaders to suspend Syria. It was a result, say diplomats, of Gulf pressure.

Qatar, the tiny Gulf nation seeking a larger regional role, publicly led the way and has received much of the credit. But Arab League diplomats say it was Saudi Arabia that carried out much of the behind-the-scenes arm-twisting needed to get a nearly unanimous decision against Syria. One diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak on the matter, said it was Saudi Arabia that convinced a reluctant Egypt to vote for the measure, and that it had worked on other nations as well.

Analysts also said Saudi Arabia provided the heft behind Qatar’s push. Saudi Arabia was motivated largely by the opportunity to counter the influence of its enemy Iran, which supports Syria. But to see the Gulf kingdom take such an interventionist policy is a shift, says Hanna. And with the former pillars of the Arab world in flux – Egypt, Syria, and Iraq – Saudi dominance at the Arab League is only likely to grow, he says.  

“While we might see a rebalancing going forward, with a more independent Egypt, that's not going to happen for awhile. And it's not going to happen for awhile with the Syrians or the Iraqis,” he says. “We've seen Qatar try to fill that vacuum, and they've played a huge role of late, but it also means that for better or worse there's a real opening for Saudi exercise of power.”

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