Syria faces growing world pressure to halt bloodshed

Syria incurred more European sanctions and criticism from Turkey and Jordan on Monday.

Beirut: Syria incurred more European sanctions and criticism from Turkey and Jordan on Monday after a surprise Arab League decision to suspend it for failing to halt months of violence aimed at crushing opposition to President Bashar al-Assad.

Syria looks ever more isolated, but still has the support of Russia, which said the Arab League had made the wrong move and accused the West of inciting Assad`s opponents.

Despite the diplomatic pressure, there was no let-up in violence and at least two people were killed, activists said.

The anti-Assad unrest, inspired by Arab revolts elsewhere, has devastated Syria`s economy, scaring off tourists and investors, while Western sanctions have crippled oil exports.

Jordan`s King Abdullah said Assad should quit. "I believe, if I were in his shoes, I would step down," he told the BBC.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem said the League`s decision, due to take effect on Wednesday, was "an extremely dangerous step" at a time when Damascus was implementing an Arab deal to end violence and start talks with the opposition.

Syria has called for an emergency Arab League summit in an apparent effort to forestall its suspension.

The Cairo-based League plans to meet Syrian dissident groups on Tuesday, but its secretary-general, Nabil Elaraby, said on Sunday it was too soon to consider recognising the Syrian opposition as the country`s legitimate authority.

Elaraby met representatives of Arab civil society groups on Monday and agreed to send a 500-strong fact-finding committee, including military personnel, to Syria as part of efforts to end the crackdown on demonstrators and dissenters.

"Syria agreed to receive the committee," said Ibrahim al-Zafarani, of the Arab Medical Union.

Moualem said Syria had withdrawn troops from urban areas, released prisoners and offered an amnesty to armed insurgents under an initiative agreed with the Arab League two weeks ago.

Yet violence has intensified since then, especially in the central city of Homs, pushing the death toll in eight months of protests to more than 3,500 by a UN count. Damascus says armed "terrorist" gangs have killed 1,100 soldiers and police.

Syria`s ban on most foreign media makes it hard to verify events on the ground.

Shooting, tank fire

In the latest violence, security police shot dead activist Amin Abdo al-Ghothani in front of his nine-year-old son at a roadblock outside the town of Inkhil, a grassroots organisation known as the Local Coordination Committees said.

In Homs, residents said renewed tank shelling killed a teen-ager and wounded eight people in the restive Bab Amro district. Students in the Damascus suburb of Erbin chanted "God is greater than the oppressor”, according to a YouTube video.

Moualem described Washington`s support for the Arab League action as "incitement," but voiced confidence that Russia and China would continue to block Western efforts to secure UN Security Council action, let alone any foreign intervention.

"The Libya scenario will not be repeated," he said.

It was the Arab League`s decision to suspend Libya and call for a no-fly zone that helped persuade the UN Security Council to authorise a NATO air campaign to protect civilians, which also aided rebels who ousted and killed Muammar Gaddafi.

The Arab League made no call for military action, but its disciplining of Syria is deeply embarrassing to a nation touted by its Baathist leaders as the Arab world`s "beating heart”.

Syrian state television said millions of Syrians protested at the League decision in Damascus and other cities on Sunday.

Crowds also attacked Saudi, Turkish and French diplomatic missions in Syria after the Arab League announcement.

Moualem apologised for the assaults, which have worsened already tense ties between Syria and its former friend Turkey.

"We will take the most resolute stance against these attacks and we will stand by the Syrian people`s rightful struggle," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the Turkish Parliament, saying Damascus could no longer be trusted.

Non-Arab Turkey, after long courting Assad, has lost patience with its neighbour. It now hosts the main Syrian opposition and has given refuge to defecting Syrian soldiers.

Turkey`s stance has stung its former friends in Damascus.

"The implementation of the Arab plan must be accompanied by the securing of borders by neighbouring countries," Moualem Said. "I mean here specifically the flow of weapons from Turkey and the transfer of money to the leaders of armed groups."

EU sanctions

The European Union extended penalties to 18 more Syrians linked with the crackdown on dissent and approved plans to stop Syria accessing funds from the European Investment Bank.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she was in touch with the Arab League to work on an approach to Syria, but the 27-nation body appears set against military intervention.

"This is a different situation from Libya," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in Brussels, where EU foreign ministers were meeting. "There is no United Nations Security Council resolution and Syria is a much more complex situation."

Syria, which borders Israel, is Iran`s main Arab ally and has strong ties with Shi`ite Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and the Islamist Hamas movement that rules the Gaza Strip.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose country joined China to block a UN resolution critical of Syria in October, criticised the Arab League`s decision.

Russia, an arms supplier to the Syrians, has urged Assad to implement reforms but opposes sanctions and has accused the United States and France of discouraging dialogue in Syria.

"There has been and continues to be incitement of radical opponents (of Assad) to take a firm course for regime change and reject any invitations to dialogue," Lavrov said.

The Arab League also plans to impose unspecified economic and political sanctions on Syria and has urged its members to recall their ambassadors from Damascus.

Assad still has some support at home, especially from his own minority Alawite sect and Christians, wary of sectarian conflict or Sunni Muslim domination if he were to be toppled.

Despite some defections, the Syrian military has not emulated its counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia in abandoning long-serving presidents faced with popular discontent.

The government has acknowledged that sanctions are hurting, but it is not clear whether this will force any policy change.

Chris Phillips of the Economist Intelligence Unit in London said Syria`s economy was "slowly bleeding to death”.

Bureau Report

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