DAMASCUS //Syria called for an emergency summit of regional leaders yesterday, following moves to suspend Damascus from the Arab League over its failure to implement a peace plan.
After regime supporters ransacked the Saudi and Qatari embassies on Saturday night and state-controlled media had vociferously condemned the league's decision, officials unexpectedly moved to shore up their fraying links with the organisation yesterday, striking a more conciliatory note.
Syria's state run news agency, Sana, announced president Bashar al Assad had proposed an urgent meeting of Arab League leaders to "tackle the Syrian crisis and look into its negative repercussions on the Arab situation".
There was no immediate response from the Arab League, although it had previously said Syria must fully implement the peace deal agreed on November 2 before any further talks or lifting of the suspension.
An Arab League ministerial committee voted on Saturday to impose economic and diplomatic sanctions on Syria, and possibly refer it to the UN Security Council over use of violence against ciivlians.
Damascus had angrily insisted the move was illegal under league rules, with state-run media calling the step tantamount to a "declaration of war".
Later, however, Sana said Syria's leadership still viewed the league's plan as the appropriate framework in which to solve the eight-month-old crisis "despite all of the shortcomings and gaps".
It also said Damascus invited a delegation from the Arab League - the same group that had voted overwhelmingly in favour of the suspension, due to start on Wednesday - to come and visit Syria.
Arab foreign ministers would be there, Sana said, "with the aim of directly inspecting what is taking place on the ground and supervising the implementation of the Arab Initiative in cooperation with the Syrian government".
Damascus says it has already implemented most of the clauses in the November 2 agreement. Under that deal it was required to stop using violence, free thousands of political prisoners, pull tanks and troops out of residential areas and start talks with anti-regime opposition groups.
Announcing the decision to suspend Syria, the Arab League said those terms had not been met. More than 60 people have been killed in military assaults since the deal was signed, according to the UN and human rights groups.
That move brought an unequivocal response from the Syrian regime and Mr al Assad's supporters large numbers of whom - millions, according to state-run television - turned out at rallies in Damascus, Aleppo, Latakia and other cities yesterday to condemn the league and pledge allegiance to their president.
Outside the Qatari embassy, which had been mobbed by regime loyalists on Saturday night, flags showing Mr Al Assad's face still flew over the entrances to the compound yesterday morning, as a crowd once again gathered in the street, cursing Doha for its role in the suspension decision.
Other diplomatic missions had been similarly treated in the immediate aftermath of the Arab League's announcement, with the nearby Saudi Arabian embassy ransacked, the Turkish consulate broken into and French offices in Latakia and Aleppo targeted.
But by yesterday afternoon the strategy seemed to have changed, with Syria moving to re-engage the league.
Syrian analysts and commentators were divided over what the U-turn signified. "It seems the wiser heads in the regime have prevailed and that they realise just how serious this is, that it is not enough just to turn their backs to the Arab League," said one independent analyst.
"The real question is do they want to seriously re-engage before it's too late or are they buying time pretending to cooperate so they can crush the protests."
The Arab League's tough stance took Syria by surprise, analysts have suggested, with Damascus expecting a much more timid response. Of most concern for Syria was the league's suggestion it would refer the case to the United Nations to safeguard civilians against government forces.
UN and human rights groups say more than 3,500 people have been killed by Syrian security services since March. Another seven died yesterday, activists said: five civilians and two security personnel in the restive province of Homs.
Mr Al Arabi, the Arab League chief, explicitly underlined the possibility of UN involvement again yesterday during a visit to the Libyan capital, Tripoli, saying "there is nothing wrong with going to the UN Security Council" with the Syrian file.
That is something Damascus has been at pains to avoid, relying on Russian and Chinese vetoes to protect it from censure and possible UN sanctions or an arms embargo. Syria also fears that, as in the case of Libya, the result of UN involvement could eventually be foreign military forces being asked to protect Syrian demonstrators.
Damascus is adamant it is making sweeping political reforms that will satisfy the majority of the country's 23 million populace, while simultaneously facing a foreign-backed insurgency by Islamist militants that has killed more than 1,100 security officers and hundreds of civilians.
Opposition groups insist the uprising remains an overwhelmingly peaceful demand for democracy and an end to decades of autocratic rule by one family. There are, however, increasing cases of anti-regime groups taking up arms and attacking government forces. That has fuelled alarm that Syria is on course for a civil war.
"The Arab League's decision to suspend Syria marks a new chapter in this crisis," said a former adviser to the government. "Unless something significant changes very quickly we are accelerating towards foreign intervention of some kind, it's hard to escape that conclusion. These are especially dangerous times."