CAIRO // Arab nations closed ranks against Syria yesterday with a nearly unanimous vote in the Arab League to suspend the country from the organisation and consider sanctions.
Members will impose economic and political sanctions on President Bashar Al Assad's regime if it fails to satisfy the league that it is complying with an Arab-brokered plan to end violent repression of protests, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, Qatar's prime minister, said after the emergency session in Cairo.
The resolution also recommends that all Arab states withdraw their ambassadors from Damascus and pledged that the league would hold talks with Syrian opposition groups about the transition to democracy. Syria's suspension from the 22-member league is to begin on Wednesday.
"We were criticised for taking a long time, but this was out of our concern for Syria," Sheikh Hamad said. "We needed to have a majority to approve those decisions. Syria is a dear country for all of us and it pains us to make this decision. We hope there will be a brave move from Syria to stop the violence and begin a real dialogue towards real reform."
Recognising concerns that the decision could pave the way for international intervention, as occurred in Libya, Sheikh Hamad stressed that "no one is talking about a no-fly zone, people are trying to mix up the cases. None of us is talking about this kind of decision".
Eighteen members voted in favour of the resolution. Iraq abstained, and Lebanon, Yemen and Syria itself voted against.
The vote shows new unity among the group's membership after Syria continued its military crackdown in defiance of the peace deal signed on November 2. As many as 250 people had been killed since the plan was adopted, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an anti-regime group that monitors the protests.
The vote was harsher than Damascus expected, with even opposition figures surprised by the league's direct call to the Syrian army - over Mr Al Assad's head - for soldiers not to kill civilians.
"That is very significant and it puts real pressure on the regime," said one dissident. "So does the promise to hold talks with the opposition to discuss the transition to democracy independently of Assad."
Damascus appeared to have been confident it would be supported by Sudan, Oman, Algeria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon, with other smaller Arab states expected to abstain.
Syrian officials accused the Arab League of following a "dangerous" plan concocted in Washington. Yousef Ahmad, Syria's ambassador to the league, said the resolution was "illegal", violating Arab League regulations. Syria's state run media cited Mr Ahmad as saying the decision marked the death of Arab common action and showed the Arab League to be "subordinate to US-Western agendas".
"This is a big step by the Arab League," said an independent analyst in Damascus. "Syria now has two choices. If wisdom prevails, it will implement the plan, pull out the tanks now and release thousands of prisoners in the next couple of days.
"Alternatively, it can start a war of words against the Arab League and continue the crackdown. That will mean it has decided to walk the same path as Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein."
Regime supporters angrily condemned the decision and the league. One, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the organisation was "irrelevant, it does not exist".
With Russia and China both having thrown their support behind the Arab League peace plan, Syria will want to convince them it is implementing the deal. That will be made much more difficult if the league does formally suspend Damascus on Wednesday.
Then, the way will be open for the Syrian crisis to be referred to the United Nations Security Council, and Moscow and Beijing, which have vetoed critical UN resolutions, may decide they can no longer give Damascus diplomatic cover.
"I'm sure Russia and China will now be telling Syria, 'You must implement the deal, this is your last chance'," the analyst in Damascus said. "They have until Wednesday to do that."
The aggressive moves by the league will provide momentum to the pro-democracy protesters opposing the Al Assad regime but were unlikely to produce any quick results, analysts said.
"We're not going to see the imminent collapse of the regime," said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Centre in Qatar. "But it does increase the chance of a multilateral action against the regime in the next month or two. The Arab cover has been lifted."
Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim suggested the league would seek assistance from the United Nations if the violence continues, echoing a move that was made against Qaddafi in March after Libya had its membership suspended .
The Arab League's decision marked a departure from the group's record of making conservative decisions about regional politics, analysts said yesterday.
"This is a new Arab League," said Gamal Soltan, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. "Typically it has applied the politics of the lowest common denominator between the Arab countries, but apparently things are changing."