Arab League divided over suspending Syria’s membership


The Arab League debated for hours Sunday on whether to suspend Syria’s membership over the bloody crackdown on anti-regime protesters, but deep divisions among the 22 nations suggested the proposal will not pass.

To sideline Syria, at least two-thirds of the countries would have to support suspension. A bloc of six Gulf nations, including Saudi Arabia, was leading the push for the measure along with recognition of the opposition leadership, the Syrian National Council, said an Arab diplomat.

However, the diplomat said a significant bloc of countries was opposed, including Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon and Yemen, whose leader is also facing a serious uprising. According to Arab League diplomats, Mideast heavyweight Egypt has not indicated yet which side it is on. The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.

Saudi political scientist Khalid al-Dakhil said a suspension would send a powerful message.

“The Arab League silence was like a green light to the regime to continue killings. It gave a cover for the Syrian regime,” he said.

Still the suspension of an Arab League member is rare. And although the move would not likely have a direct, tangible impact on Syria, it would constitute a major blow to President Bashar Assad’s embattled regime by stripping Damascus of its Arab support and further deepening its isolation.

The group suspended Libya’s membership earlier this year after Moammar Gadhafi’s violent crackdown on protesters there. That gave the international community a free hand to intervene with air power to target Gadhafi’s forces and the League has since reinstated Libya under the country’s new leadership.

Arab foreign ministers met at the group’s Cairo headquarters behind closed doors for an initial 3-hour session without Syria’s representative, then took a break and reconvened for talks with Syrian diplomats that lasted late into the night. A decision on the suspension is expected at the meeting.

In between sessions, Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby said Syria has not heeded Arab League calls for a cease-fire and reiterated demands that Assad end violence, launch a comprehensive national dialogue and work toward an immediate halt to hostilities, which the U.N. says have killed more than 3,000 people since the uprising began in mid-March.

“Unfortunately the situation remains dangerous,” Elaraby said.

Syria’s ambassador to the Arab League, Youssef Ahmad, held a document he said was shared with the Arab foreign ministers. In it, he alleged, was proof that weapons from Israel had been found in Syria among the protesters.

“The Syrian opposition is also getting logistical support from Arab countries,” he said in his public remarks to the body. The Syrian regime frequently claims outside forces are fomenting the violence.

“We are asking for an end to the media campaign against us,” Ahmad told diplomats, among them ministers from Qatar and Saudi Arabia where two of the region’s most popular satellite channels, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, were founded.

Despite the growing international chorus for an end to the crisis, Assad has shown no sign of easing his campaign to crush the 7-month-old uprising. On Sunday, security forces opened fire on a funeral for a slain activist in the east. Forces elsewhere arrested at least 44 people in the capital’s suburbs in house-to-house raids and activists said more than 900 people in the central city of Homs had been detained over the past week.

Arab League officials said the meeting was called at the behest of several Gulf countries. Many Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, already have withdrawn their ambassadors from Syria to protest the regime’s bloody response to the protests. Other Arab countries, however, have remained silent or reluctant in their criticism of the Syrian crackdown.

International intervention is all but out of the question in Syria. Washington and its allies have shown little appetite for stepping into another Arab nation in turmoil. There also is real concern that Assad’s ouster would spread chaos around the region.

Syria is a geographical and political keystone in the heart of the Middle East, bordering five countries with which it shares religious and ethnic minorities. Its web of allegiances extends to Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement and Iran’s Shiite theocracy.

About 2,000 anti-Assad protesters gathered outside the Arab League building on the edge of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the center of Egypt’s uprising.

“Oh, Bashar, son of a dog, go away, Bashar!” they shouted. “Freedom is on fire. Go away, Bashar.”

The newly formed opposition body known as the Syrian National Council called on the Arab League to suspend Syria’s membership “until a new regime is born.” It also appealed for the council to recognize it as the “sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.”