U.S. President Barack Obama led the West’s praise Saturday for the Arab League’s “leadership” in suspending Syria, further deepening the Damascus regime’s isolation amid a brutal crackdown.
The League said the suspension will remain in place until President Bashar al-Assad implements an Arab deal to end violence against protesters, and called for economic and political sanctions and transition talks with the opposition.
Syrian envoy Yussef Ahmad denounced the move as illegal, saying Damascus had already implemented the deal and accusing the United States of ordering the suspension.
He also charged that the League was trying to “provoke foreign intervention in Syria, as was the case in Libya.”
But Western leaders were quick to heap praise on the Arab League as pressure mounted for Assad to step down in the wake of a crackdown that has left more than 3,500 people dead, according to U.N. figures.
“These significant steps expose the increasing diplomatic isolation of a regime that has systematically violated human rights and repressed peaceful protests,” Obama said in a statement issued in Hawaii, where he is hosting an Asia-Pacific summit.
Obama’s government ditched its earlier strategy of seeking engagement with the Assad regime after government forces unleashed a fierce crackdown on demonstrators, which the U.S. president deplored as “callous violence.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a statement said the Arab League’s decision was a “strong and historic stance aimed at stopping the violence in Syria and protecting Syrian civilians.”
“The failure of the Assad regime, once again, to heed the call of regional states and the international community underscores the fact that it has lost all credibility,” Clinton added.
The European Union said its members “fully support” the League’s move.
“We welcome the Arab League’s offer to end the violence and bring about the reforms that the Syrian people have bravely demanded over the last few months,” said Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
In Cairo, the Arab League said Syria’s suspension would last until “total implementation” of the grouping’s peace plan under which Damascus had agreed to release detainees, withdraw the army from urban areas, allow free movement for observers and media and negotiate with the opposition.
Instead, human rights groups say, the regime has intensified its crackdown, especially in the city of Homs, an epicenter of protests.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the League's decision as “strong and courageous.”
“He welcomes the League's intention to provide protection for the civilians, and expresses his readiness to provide the relevant support when requested,” a U.N. statement said.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the Arab League’s decision showed the “frustration” of its members over Assad’s “intransigence,” in a rare show of Arab unity against a leader in the region.
“As Syrian security forces escalate the violence on the streets of Syria, we and others across the international community share this frustration,” Hague said.
“We support the Arab League in its efforts to bring about an end to the killing of Syrian people. The continuing violence is deplorable and must stop.”
“We remain clear –President Assad needs to step aside and political transition needs to be taken forward now,” Hague said.
France, which has sought for months a firm condemnation of Syria at the U.N. Security Council, urged the international community to act swiftly to “make the violence end, protect the civilian population and allow for political transition in Syria,” Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.
Juppe said the move demonstrated that “it is high time to step up pressure on the Syrian regime so that it immediately ends the savage repression against its population.”
The Syrian opposition also welcomed theArab League decision and said it is ready to participate in talks to draw up a transitional period.
The Syrian National Council “welcomes the decisions that the Arab Ministerial Council issued, considers them a step in the right direction, and a clear condemnation of the Syrian regime, which has persisted in its killing and destruction campaigns,” an official of the council said.
“These decisions confirm the vitality of the Arab role in supporting the Syrian people,” the unnamed official added, quoted in an email statement received by AFP in Nicosia.
The Syrian National Council, the country’s largest and most representative opposition grouping, said it is also prepared to take part in talks for a transitional period, as proposed by the pan-Arab group.
“The National Council emphasizes its readiness to participate in discussions regarding the transitional period within the scope of the Arab League, to ensure the stepping down of Bashar Al-Assad and the transition to a democratic government that represents the Syrian people and does not anyone from the regime whose hands have been tainted with blood,” said the official.
The council was founded in Istanbul at the end of August and numbers 140 members, half of them living abroad
Diplomatic missions attacked
Meanwhile crowds armed with sticks and knives attacked the Saudi Arabian embassy in Damascus and French and Turkish consulates in the city of Latakia later on Saturday after League’s decision to suspend Syria, residents said.
They said hundreds of men shouting slogans in support of President Bashar al-Assad beat a guard and broke into the Saudi embassy in Abu Rummaneh, three blocks away from Assad's offices in one of the most heavily policed areas of the capital.
“We sacrifice our blood and our soul for you, Bashar,” the crowd shouted, according to neighborhood residents.
The Saudi Foreign Ministry said in a statement that a group of demonstrators “gathered outside the embassy, threw stones at it, then stormed the building”.
The statement, carried by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA), said Syrian security forces “did not take measures to stop them ransacking the embassy”, adding that the demonstrators stayed inside for a while before they were ordered out by Syrian security.
“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia strongly condemns this incident and holds Syrian authorities responsible for the security and protection of Saudi interests and citizens in Syria”.
Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Damascus in August, when King Abdullah demanded an end to the crackdown.
Similar attacks took place in Latakia, 330 kilometers (210 miles) north of Damascus on the Mediterranean coast, where French and Turkish consulates were the targets of angry crowds, residents said.
A French Foreign Ministry spokesman said France had only an honorary consulate in Latakia and he was unaware of it having been attacked. He quoted the French ambassador to Syria as saying late on Saturday that he was unaware of any attacks on French diplomatic or other interests in Syria.
A senior diplomat in Damascus confirmed the attacks. “They did a fair bit of damage to the Saudi embassy. We do not have the full picture from Latakia, but the attacks there appear to have been really bad,” the diplomat said.
A crowd held a pro-Assad demonstration in front of the Qatari embassy in Damascus earlier in the day. Qatar is the current head of the Arab League.