Jailan Zayan, AFP
Last updated: 14 November, 2011

Arab League to meet, as pressure mounts on Syria

Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said on Monday that the government in Damascus will not budge despite its suspension from the Arab League, which he warned was a “dangerous step.”

Muallem’s comments come after the Arab League announced a fresh meeting on Syria and as global pressure, including a threat of new sanctions, intensified on President Bashar al-Assad’s regime over its lethal crackdown on protests.

“The decision of the Arab League to suspend Syria… represents a dangerous step,” Muallem told a packed news conference in Damascus.

“Today there is a crisis in Syria which pays the price of its strong positions. Syria will not budge and will emerge stronger… and plots against Syria will fail,” said the minister.

Muallem said Syria’s government was not concerned about the likelihood of foreign military intervention in the country, due to the opposition of China and Russia.

“Syria is not Libya. The Libyan scenario will not be repeated; what is happening in Syria is different from what happened in Libya and the Syrian people should not worry,” he said.

In Brussels, diplomats said the European Union is set to slap further sanctions on Syria, targeting 18 people and freezing credits, with the measures likely to be agreed upon at talks between the EU’s foreign ministers Monday.

The Arab League talks scheduled for Wednesday come after the 22-member bloc’s surprise weekend decision to suspend Syria, drawing international praise but sparking mob attacks on foreign embassies in Damascus.

“We have decided on a meeting of foreign ministers of the Arab League on November 16 at Rabat (Morocco), on Syria,” Algerian foreign ministry spokesman Amar Belani told AFP.

Arab foreign ministers had met in Cairo on November 2, and drew up a plan to end the violence in Syria which has left 3,500 dead since mid-March according to the United Nations.

Under the deal, Syria would pull back its troops from the cities that were the focus of the anti-government protests and free demonstrators arrested since the start of the uprising.

An Arab League official in Cairo told AFP that Wednesday’s meeting would assess the degree to which Syria had applied the November 2 agreement.

“The implementation of the suspension is due to begin on Wednesday. The foreign ministers will meet in Morocco to assess the situation and implement the deal,” the official said.

The November 2 meeting had given Syria 15 days to comply with the peace plan.

At a meeting of the League’s foreign ministers in Cairo on Saturday, 18 of the 22 members voted to suspend Syria from November 16 over its failure to comply with an agreement to end its crackdown on protests.

Syria, Yemen and Lebanon voted against the measure, and Iraq abstained.

The foreign ministers recommended the withdrawal of Arab envoys from Damascus and agreed on sanctions, while inviting “all currents in the Syrian opposition” to meet at its Cairo headquarters to map out a transition.

Despite the suspension, Syria is to retain its seat at the Arab League, unlike the decision to expel Egypt in 1979 when it signed a peace treaty with Israel.

In practical terms, the suspension means Syrian delegates and ministers will not be allowed to take part in the League’s activities.

The Arab League resolution won widespread praise from the international community.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Monday that he backed the suspension, but his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov condemned it, saying the move was “incorrect.”

“It’s important that the EU consider additional measures” against the Syrian regime, Hague said ahead of the EU ministers’ meeting.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, also in Brussels for the meeting, said it was time to look at increased protection for Syria’s civilians and urged the UN Security Council to take a stand.

“Today the time has come to see how we can better protect the population. I hope the Security Council too will finally take a position,” Juppe said.

Arab League head Nabil al-Arabi at the weekend said League representatives would be “studying mechanisms it could implement to protect civilians in Syria.”

China, meanwhile, on Monday urged Syria to implement the Arab League plan.

“What is pressing now is to implement the Arab League’s initiative appropriately and earnestly,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told journalists at a regular briefing in Beijing.

“China once again urges the Syrian government and all relevant parties to cease violence, launch an inclusive and balanced political process and make unremitting efforts to realise the Arab League’s initiative.”

The League’s decision to suspend Syria prompted an outpouring of anger among Assad supporters who surged in their tens of thousands into central Damascus on Sunday to show their support for the president.

Late Saturday, hundreds of angry demonstrators attacked the embassies of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which were among the countries that voted to suspend Syria. The attacks sparked howls of international outrage.