The Arab League has offered the government of Bashar al-Assad three more days to stop violence or else face economic sanctions after a previous deadline for Syria to act passed on Wednesday.
The announcement followed the regional bloc’s foreign ministers meeting in the Moroccan capital, Rabat, to decide their next move after Assad ignored the ultimatum issued on Saturday.
The Arab League is “giving the Syrian government three days to stop the bloody repression” of its civilian population, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, the Qatari foreign minister, said in Rabat.
“But if Damascus does not agree to co-operate with the League, sanctions will be adopted against Syria.”
Sheikh Hamad said that Arab patience with Assad’s government was running out, but that it still had time.
“I don’t want to speak about last chances so [Syria] doesn’t think it is being given an ultimatum, but we are almost at the end of the line,” he said.
The Arab League also said it would send international observers to Syria, but only if Syria agreed to the plan.
Meanwhile, Germany, Britain and France are pressing for a UN resolution that would strongly condemn Syria’s alledged human rights violations and call for an immediate halt to all violence in the country.
The three European countries decided to move ahead with the General Assembly resolution after the Arab League confirmed its suspension of Syria on Wednesday.
The developments followed a day after 14 soldiers and 17 civilians were killed in violence, according to Syrian opposition groups.
Early on Wednesday, crowds supporting Assad vandalised at least two Arab embassies in Damascus.
Large crowds threw stones and debris and sprayed graffiti on the walls of the United Arab Emirates embassy, witnesses told the Reuters news agency. Others attacked the Moroccan embassy, Taieb Fassi Fihri, Morocco’s foreign minister, said.
“You bastards, you agents of Israel,” read some of the graffiti on the UAE embassy, witnesses said. The embassy is located in the affluent Abu Dummana neighbourhood, where Assad has his home and personal offices.
The Arab League’s initial ultimatum to Syria, issued on Saturday, which was supported by 18 of the league’s 22 members, including the UAE and Morocco, recommended withdrawing ambassadors from Damascus.
Lebanon and Yemen voted against adopting the decision, and Iraq abstained.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told his country’s parliament on Wednesday that the ambassador to Syria, Eric Chevallier, would be provisionally withdrawn.
“New violence has taken place, and that has led to the closure of our missions in Aleppo and Latakia,” Juppe said.
A gang of people armed with knives and clubs broke in to the French consular offices in Latakia earlier this month, Al Jazeera’s Jacky Rowland, reporting from Paris, said.
She said the French embassy in Damascus would remain open.
The Syrian government boycotted the Rabat meeting, though Morocco’s Fassi Fihri said earlier that Syria would be welcome to attend.
“In light of statements by officials in Morocco, Syria has decided not to participate in the Arab meeting in Rabat,” an official in the ministry of foreign affairs told the state news agency. The statement did not give more details.
Boldest attack yet
In what may be a sign of more fighting to come, Syrian activists said on Wednesday that army defectors attacked an intelligence complex in the Damascus suburbs in what appears to be one of their boldest assaults so far against government security forces.
Members of the Free Syrian Army fired heavy weaponry and machine guns at a large air force intelligence complex in Harasta on the northern edge of the capital along the Damascus-Aleppo highway early on Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Syrian Revolution General Commission told Al Jazeera.
The spokesperson said the attack followed a raid by the Syrian army on Harasta on Tuesday and carefully co-ordinated army defections which enabled former soldiers to run away with their weapons.
A gunfight ensued and helicopters circled the area, sources said.
“I heard several explosions, the sound of machine-gun fire being exchanged,” a Harasta resident who declined to be named said. There was no immediate report of casualties and the area where the fighting occurred remained inaccessible, the sources said.
Foreign media banned
Syria’s has banned most foreign media from the country and tightly controls access for foreign visitors, making it difficult to verify events on the ground.
“This is probably not the first attack on [a] security headquarters,” Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin reported from neighbouring Lebanon.
“But what is significant about this attack is that it is in Damascus, the capital. This shows how much trouble there is for the regime.”
In addition to other responsibilities, the air force intelligence services work with military intelligence to prevent dissent in the army.
The two divisions have been instrumental in the crackdown on the ongoing uprising against Assad, which the UN says has killed at least 3,500 people since March.
Syria’s military is controlled by Assad’s brother, Maher, and members of their minority Alawite faith, a sect of Shia Islam.
But the army is composed mostly of Sunni Muslims, who are a majority in Syria and have been defecting from the army in growing numbers.
Syrian authorities have blamed “armed terrorist groups” for the unrest, which they say has caused the deaths of 1,100 army and police personnel.