Friday 23 February 2018

Arab League in vote to suspend Syria over killings

Regime is told it must end the crackdown on opponents or sanctions will be implemented

Jack Shenker in Cairo and Peter Beaumont

SYRIA has been told it will be suspended from the Arab League in four days' time -- and faces the threat of sanctions in the Arab world -- if it does not agree to end its bloody crackdown on anti-government protesters. The vote in Cairo took place after Syria had failed to abide by an agreement negotiated by the Arab League to end violence against its people, instead continuing with assaults on opposition centres.

The dramatic decision comes as a deep blow to a nation that has long prided itself on being a significant centre of Arab nationalism, but reflects the growing sense of anger in the Arab world towards President Bashar al-Assad and his regime.

Qatar's prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, Hamad bin Jassem, said 18 countries had agreed to the suspension, which will take effect on Wednesday. Syria, Lebanon and Yemen voted against it and Iraq abstained.

The Arab League will also introduce political and economic sanctions against Syria.

A double line of police protected the entrance to the building on the fringes of Tahrir Square and tried to ensure there was no repeat of last Wednesday's scenes when a Syrian opposition delegation was pelted with eggs by protesters who accused them of being too conciliatory towards Mr al-Assad.

As the discussion over Syria's membership of the Arab League took place, hundreds of Syrians gathered at the gates waving flags, banging drums and calling for international protection from a regime they say is massacring its own people.

By the side of the road, canvas sacks stuffed with straw were laid out like body bags in a morgue, each one scrawled with the name of a different Arab nation undergoing its own political upheaval.

Demonstrators said that the mock corpses represented the thousands that have been killed across the region in the struggle for liberation, but many felt they also symbolised the death of the Arab League itself, which has struggled as an institution to reflect the grassroots explosion of expectations and change that has erupted throughout the Middle East this year.

As news filtered out of the decision, the rally rapidly mutated into a celebration as children were wrapped in Syrian headbands, singing broke out and passing cars honked their horns.

Mohamed Saidi, an electrical engineer, flew from his job in Saudi Arabia to join the protests in Cairo.

"If Arab unity still means anything, then it must mean something today," he said.

"A message has to be sent, and that is 'the killing stops, right now'. We must speak as one on this; everything else is secondary."

Violence has continued unabated since Syria agreed on November 2 to an Arab-brokered peace deal that called for Syria to halt violence against protesters, pull its tanks and armoured vehicles out of cities, release political prisoners and allow journalists and rights groups into the country.

"Syria is a dear country for all of us and it pains us to make this decision," Mr Bin Jassim said. "We hope there will be a brave move from Syria to stop the violence and begin a real dialogue."

In a nod to concerns that the decision could pave the way to international intervention, as took place in Libya, Mr Bin Jassim stressed that "no one is talking about a no-fly zone. People are trying to mix up the cases. None of us is talking about this kind of decision."

More than 250 Syrian civilians have been killed in the past 11 days as the regime continues to besiege the rebellious city of Homs.

The UN estimates that some 3,500 people have been killed in the crackdown since the Syrian uprising began eight months ago, inspired by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.

The bloodshed has spiked dramatically in recent weeks amid signs that more protesters are taking up arms.

Sunday Independent

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