Where is Syria heading, and what can a divided international community do about it?
The Arab League has approved sanctions against Syria to pressure the government to end its eight-month crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, effective immediately.
Syria described the move, announced on Sunday in Cairo, as a betrayal of Arab solidarity.
At a press conference in the Egyptian capital, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, the Qatari prime minister, said 19 of the bloc’s 22 member nations approved the sanctions, including cutting off transactions with the Syrian central bank and halting Arab government funding for projects in Syria.
“Today is a sad day for me, because we still hope our brothers in Syria will sign the document of the protocol and stop the killings, and to release the detainees and withdraw its military from Syrian districts,” Sheikh Hamad said.
“We are trying to prevent any foreign intervention into Syria.”
The sanctions include a stop to relationships between Arab countries and the Syrian Central Bank, a stop to trade exchange with the Syrian government, and a travel ban on Syrian officials.
“In these decisions we aim at avoiding any sufferings of the Syrian people,” Sheikh Hamad said. “We want to make sure these decisions are not hitting the Syrian people, whether directly or indirectly.”
The Arab League had set a Friday deadline for Syria to allow rights monitors into the country and withdraw tanks from the streets or face sanctions, but the ultimatum drew no firm commitment from Syrian officials.
Arab bloc’s conditions
Nabil Elaraby, the Arab League secretary-general, said the sanctions would be reconsidered if Syria met those demands.
“We call on Syria to quickly approve the Arab initiative,” he said.
Iraq had abstained from the vote, and refused to implement it, while Lebanon “disassociated itself” from the decision.
“Lebanon has dissasociated itself from the vote because it is in a very difficult position,” Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr reported from Tripoli, a city in neighbouring Lebanon.
“This country is divided: there are those who support the Syrian government and there are those who don’t.
“Syria is Lebanon’s economic lifeline, and any sanctions would severely affect Lebanon.”
Syria’s state-owned Al-Thawra newspaper said the move was “unprecedented and contradicts the rules of Arab co-operation”, and that the proposed sanctions were “targeting the Syrian people”.
The Arab League’s recommendations for sanctions specified that the bloc will assist Syria with emergency aid through the help of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, working with local civilian groups to deliver goods.
Walid al-Muallem, Syrian foreign minister, earlier sent a critical letter to the Arab League, accusing it of trying to “internationalise” the conflict in Syria.
He had called any sanctions an invitation “for foreign intervention instead of a call to avoid one … what we understand, by this latest Arab League decision, is a tacit green light for the internationalisation of the situation in Syria and to meddle in its domestic affairs”.
Concerns over sanctions
According to Syria’s bureau of statistics, 52.5 per cent of all Syrian exports went to Arab countries in 2009 while 16.4 per cent of imports came from Arab nations.
Iraq tops the list of importers, buying up 31.4 per cent of outgoing Syrian goods.
Nasser Judeh, the foreign minister of Jordan whose imports travel by land across Syrian territory, also expressed concerns after the vote which his country endorsed.
“The impact of such decisions on Arab countries, particularly neighbours [of Syria] … must be taken into consideration,” he said.
But the impact of the Arab sanctions is expected to be crippling for Syria itself which already faces a raft of EU and US measures even without Iraq or Lebanon’s participation.
In London, William Hague, the UK foreign secretary, praised the Arab League’s move.
“Today’s unprecedented decision to impose sanctions demonstrates that the regime’s repeated failure to deliver on its promises will not be ignored and that those who perpetrate these appalling abuses will be held to account,” he said in a statement.
The sanctions announcement came as activists reported fierce clashes on Sunday in the flashpoint city of Homs, in central Syria, pitting soldiers against army defectors.
“Violent clashes occurred this morning between Syria’s regular army and groups of deserters in the region of Talbiseh. Two troop transporters were destroyed,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based opposition group, said.
“The regular army is using heavy machineguns in its operations in Talbiseh …Four civilians have been wounded.”
Al Jazeera’s Nisreen El-Shamayleh, reporting from neighbouring Jordan, quoted the Syrian Revolution General Commission, a part of another opposition group, the Syrian National Council, as claiming that a total of 26 people were killed in Syria on Sunday.
Syria has banned foreign journalists from entering the country, preventing them from reporting from the ground, therefore the information provided cannot be verified.