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Arab countries, after months of silence on Syria's uprising, have come out against the Assad regime's brutal crackdown on protesters. Though regional autocrats and monarchies were initially hesitant to support a movement looking to overthrow an authoritarian leader, a sharp increase in violence – coming during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan – precipitated a round of unusually harsh criticism.
Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Syria on Sunday night, capping a weekend of mounting regional condemnation of President Bashar al-Assad's regime. Kuwait followed suit on Monday. The Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional economic bloc, also criticized the Assad regime during the weekend.
“Any sane Arab, Muslim or anyone else knows that this has nothing to do with religion, or ethics or morals," Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah said in a statement, calling for an end to the Assad regime's violence. "Spilling the blood of the innocent for any reasons or pretext leads to no path to ... hope.”
Saudi Arabia is largely aligned against Syria, which has close ties with Saudi rival Iran. But as one of the most powerful nations in the Middle East, the kingdom wields significant influence. Saudi Arabia's condemnation is also noteworthy because it has largely stayed quiet in the face of other uprisings, although it sent troops to help put down an uprising in neighboring Bahrain.
According to the BBC, "by Arab diplomatic standards, it was a highly dramatic intervention by the Saudi monarch. It is by far the clearest and toughest regional position Syria has met, and it comes from one of the most influential Arab powers."
The Syrian government has repeatedly blamed the unrest on terrorists and foreign saboteurs. The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) carried a statement expressing "regret" at the Gulf Cooperation Council's criticism of the regime:
A Syrian official source on Sunday said Syria has received with regret the statement of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which completely ignored the information and facts presented by Syria on the killing and sabotage acts committed by armed terrorist groups seeking to undermine the homeland's sovereignty and security...
The source said "Overcoming the current situation of violence and the real desire to serve Syria's interest requires that the Arabs in the GCC call for stopping sabotage acts and condemning armed violence of groups which don’t have good intentions for Syria, in addition to giving the space and time needed to translate reforms into reality.
The regime's crackdown on protests has been elevated since the month-long Muslim holiday of Ramadan began a week ago. Mr. Assad's regime has attempted to head off an intensification of protests expected during the holiday – Friday gatherings at mosques for prayer, which often escalate into protests, are daily occurrences during Ramadan.
On Sunday night, thousands were out in the streets of Damascus and its suburbs and in cities in all areas of the country – Homs in the center, Latakia on the coast, Aleppo in the north, and the village of Dael in the south, the AP reports.
The locus of the violence has moved from Hama, where Syrian forces brutally crushed protests last week, to Deir al-Zour in the east. Syrian forces shelled Deir al-Zour for a second day this morning, which was accompanied by renewed artillery and machine gun fire and tanks reentering the city from one side, the BBC reports. At least 50 people were killed in Sunday's assault. The death toll from today's fighting is not yet known.
Deir al-Zour is a predominantly Sunni Muslim area where tribes still hold significant clout. By staging an assault on the city, Assad risks "drawing the ire of tribes that often live by ancient codes of retribution and are far better armed than most Syrians," the Los Angeles Times reports. The security forces's incursion into the city risks inciting a civil war between the government and the tribes, one activist told the Times.
According to the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), which carries statements from the Syrian government, there is no shelling of the city and no tanks have entered it. The army units present are there only to "remove roadblocks set up by the armed terrorist groups at the city's entrances." The Syrian Army's intervention comes at the request of tribal leaders, who asked that the army help them "restore normal life and put an end to the acts of killing and terrorism against civilians and soldiers," according to SANA.