Pressure grew on Syria on Tuesday as the foreign minister of neighbouring Turkey visits with the message that Ankara “has run out of patience” with the deadly crackdown on anti-regime protests.
His trip comes a day after Gulf nations Kuwait and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Damascus, following in the footsteps of Arab kingpin Saudi Arabia in moves that both “encouraged” and “heartened” the United States.
President Bashar al-Assad named a new defence minister on Monday as he faced regional isolation after three of six Gulf Cooperation Council states recalled their envoys and Sunni Islam’s top authority urged an end to the bloodshed.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s visit to Damascus was to pass on Ankara’s message that it “has run out of patience” with the ongoing violence, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said.
Activists said on Monday that security forces shot dead at least eight people — including a mother and her two children — in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, where 42 people were reported killed on Sunday in an army assault.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has asked Davutoglu to press Syria to “return its military to the barracks.”
The regime’s repression of Syria’s pro-democracy uprising has left at least 2,059 people dead, including almost 400 members of the security forces, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Announcing the recall of his ambassador from Syria, Saudi King Abdullah urged Damascus to “stop the killing machine and the bloodshed… before it is too late” and called for “comprehensive and quick reforms.”
“The future of Syria lies between two options: either Syria chooses willingly to resort to reason, or faces being swept into deep chaos, God forbid,” the monarch warned.
Fellow Gulf Cooperation Council states Kuwait and Bahrain also recalled their envoys. “The military option must be halted,” Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed al-Sabah told reporters.
Washington said it was encouraged by the tougher stand from Arab nations.
“We are very much encouraged, heartened by the strong statements that we’ve seen over the weekend by the Arab League as well as by the Gulf Cooperation Council,” US State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said.
These are “further signs that the international community… is repulsed by the brutal actions of the Syrian government and is standing with the Syrian people,” he added.
Toner said the move was a sign that “Assad and his government are further isolating themselves from the international community through their actions.”
Al-Azhar, the Cairo-based top Sunni authority, also piled the pressure on the Assad regime, terming the crackdown a “tragedy” that “has gone too far.”
It wanted “Syrian leaders to work immediately to end the bloodshed and to respond favourably to the legitimate demands of the Syrian masses,” said the grand imam, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb.
Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi urged Syria to launch a “serious dialogue” with protesters who have rallied almost daily since mid-March, urging democratic reforms in a country ruled by the Baath party for nearly 50 years.
Syrian state television said on Monday that Assad had signed a decree naming General Daood Rajha, 64, the former army chief, to replace General Ali Habib as defence minister.
Assad had on Sunday defended the actions of his security forces, saying they were confronting “outlaws” while SANA news agency quoted an official military source as denying charges that tanks were shelling Deir Ezzor.
The European Union is mulling new sanctions against individuals and business linked to the clampdown, EU diplomats said, as Germany warned that Assad would lose legitimacy if his regime kept up the deadly crackdown.
Assad’s replacement of the defence minister was his latest in a series of measures since protests erupted in mid-March.
He ordered a new government in April after the former premier quit and he has also sacked several governors, including those of the flashpoint provinces of Hama, Homs and Deir Ezzor.
The Syrian Observatory reported more deaths on Monday, with seven people killed including the mother and her two children shot dead as they fled the military assault on Deir Ezzor.
An 18-year-old woman was also shot by a sniper in the city, while an elderly woman was killed in Al-Jura district, the Observatory said.
It also reported three people shot dead in the southern protest hub of Deraa as they took part in the funeral of a man who died on Sunday.