Pressure mounts on Syria with Arab vote

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s embattled regime called for an urgent Arab summit as it faced growing isolation Sunday, not only by the West but by its neighbors, over its bloody crackdown against an eight-month uprising.

The crisis raised regional tensions, with Turkey sending a plane to evacuate nonessential personnel after a night of attacks on several embassies by Syrian government supporters angry over the Arab League decision Saturday to suspend their country’s membership.

The 22-member bloc’s rare, near-unanimous vote — only Lebanon, Yemen and Syria were opposed — put Damascus in direct confrontation with other Arab powers, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who were pushing for the suspension. The vote constituted a major boost for the Syrian opposition.

Tens of thousands of government supporters poured into the streets of Damascus and other cities, the turnout helped by the government’s closing of businesses and schools so that people could take part.

“You Arab leaders are the tails of Obama,” read a banner held at a huge pro-regime rally in Damascus accusing the Arab League of bowing to pressure from the U.S.

Violence continued elsewhere, with activists reporting at least 14 people killed in shootings by security forces in several parts of the country. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said seven of the deaths occurred in Hama when security forces fired on opposition protesters who infiltrated a pro-government rally.

Syria’s call for an Arab summit to discuss the country’s spiraling political unrest was seen as another possible bid by President Bashar Assad to buy time as he faces snowballing punitive action over a crackdown that the U.N. estimates has killed more than 3,500 people since mid-March.

In a thinly veiled warning, the government said it was calling for the meeting “because the fallout from the Syrian crisis could harm regional security” — an apparent effort to play on fears that Assad’s ouster would spread chaos around the Middle East.

But in a significant concession, Syria also invited Arab League officials to visit before the membership suspension is scheduled to take effect on Wednesday, and said they could bring any civilian or military observers they deem appropriate to oversee implementation of an Arab League plan for ending the bloodshed.

The Syrian government is usually loath to accept anything resembling foreign intervention, and the invitation signaled the government’s alarm over the Arab action.

Arab League officials did not immediately respond to the request for an emergency summit. Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby, on a visit to Libya, demanded immediate implementation of the peace plan. The Nov. 2 plan called on Syria to halt attacks on protesters, pull tanks out of cities and hold talks with the opposition. Syria signed on to the plan, but nothing has changed on the ground.

In voting for the suspension, the Arab League said it would meet again Wednesday in the Moroccan capital of Rabat to reconsider the decision, giving Assad some time to take action to prevent it.

Arab nations are eager to avoid seeing another leader toppled violently, as happened to Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi last month.

Assad asserts that extremists pushing a foreign agenda to destabilize Syria are behind the country’s unrest, rather than true reform-seekers aiming to open the country’s autocratic political system. Sunday’s demonstrators accused Arab countries of being complicit in the purported conspiracy.

Iraq, which abstained from Saturday’s vote, warned that the Arab League suspension could make matters worse.

“The suspension of Syria’s membership will deprive the Arab League of any communication channel with the Syrian government, and this move does not serve the interests of the Syrian people,” Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.

Members of the Syrian opposition, meanwhile, rejoiced.

“This gives strong legitimacy to our cause,” said Bassma Kodmani, a spokeswoman for the Syrian National Council, an opposition umbrella group. “We consider this decision to be a victory for the Syrian revolution.”

Hours after the Arab League vote, pro-regime demonstrators in Syria assaulted the diplomatic offices of countries critical of the Syrian government, breaking into the Saudi and Qatari embassies and attacking Turkish and French diplomatic posts across the country.

Syrian security forces confronted the attackers with batons and tear gas but were unable to stop a group from breaking into the Qatari embassy and replacing the Qatari flag with the Syrian banner. Others entered Saudi Arabia’s embassy compound, broke windows and ransacked some sections, the kingdom’s media reported.

Nobody was reported injured, but the embassy attacks were likely to stoke anger in Arab states against the regime in Damascus.

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry condemned the mob violence. And Turkey sent a plane to Damascus on Sunday to evacuate diplomatic families as well as nonessential staff, Turkey’s state-run Anatolia news agency reported. The Turkish Foreign Ministry also summoned Syria’s charge d’affaires, who was given a formal protest note over the attacks.

Turkey is not a member of the Arab League but has been sharply critical of Syria’s crackdown, and Turkey’s foreign minister welcomed the Arab League vote.

France also said it had summoned Syria’s ambassador to “remind” him of Syria’s international obligations.

On Sunday, hundreds of baton-carrying Syrian riot police in helmets ringed the U.S., Qatari, Saudi and Turkish embassies.

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