Arab League stops short of suspending Syria

CAIRO (AP) — Gulf countries seeking to suspend Syria’s membership to the Arab League over its bloody crackdown on protesters failed to gain enough support Sunday to push the measure through, reflecting deep divisions among the body’s 22 nations.

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.

Just after the meeting with Syrian diplomats, Qatar Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim made no mention of a possible suspension and instead gave Syria a 15-day deadline to enact a cease-fire.

The Arab League also agreed to create a committee led by Qatar to oversee the situation in Syria and said a national dialogue between Syrian officials and the opposition would take place at the League’s headquarters in Cairo.

“A national dialogue in 15 days is one of the most important decisions of the day,” bin Jassim said.

The national dialogue is to include members of the opposition from outside Syria as well as inside.

If the meeting and a cease-fire do not take place within the allotted time frame, the Arab League will meet again in an emergency session, participants said.

Syrian state TV reported that Damascus was not eager to hold the dialogue in Cairo, suggesting it should be held in Syria instead.

The newly formed Syrian National Council, a broad based opposition umbrella group, was also seen unlikely to accept the call for dialogue, though some factions within the fragmented opposition who might be willing to hold talks.

Some activists rejected the idea of talks with the Assad regime.

“We said it from the day the first martyr fell: No dialogue with the killers. The killers will be put on trial by the free Syrian people,” wrote prominent Syrian opposition figure Suhair Atassi on her Twitter feed. She is in hiding.

To suspend Syria’s membership, at least two-thirds of the members would have had to support the measure. 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 who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.

Many Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, already have withdrawn their ambassadors from Syria to protest the regime’s bloody response to the protests.

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 did not indicate yet which side it is on.

Suspension of an Arab League member is rare. 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.

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