On Saturday, the Arab League made one of its strongest statements since it was formed in 1945. The suspension of Syria's participation, over the objections of several of the League members, was somewhat expected; the promise of sanctions and diplomatic isolation, however, shocked not only the regime in Damascus.
We will wait to see the details of those sanctions, which may be fleshed out on Wednesday, to judge the full consequences for Syria's political future. For the moment, it is largely a symbolic move as regional powers publicly condemn the violence against citizens and isolate the regime. It is a message that will be heard loudly from Washington to Beijing, and more importantly by Assad loyalists, opposition members and other Syrians as well.
This is a considerable extension of the Arab League's gradual shift in policy over this year of regional uprisings. Widely condemned as ineffectual, timid and hostage to the narrow interests of its members, the League has begun to show a new strength. That is not to say that the League has not made its presence felt before: the eight-year suspension of Egypt following the Camp David Accords and mediation during the Lebanese Civil War both showed unified foreign policy priorities.
But the statements on Syria, and to an extent on Libya earlier in the year, were turning points: the League has voted to intervene in members' affairs based on domestic politics and in the interest of ending regimes' crimes against their own peoples. Nineteen of the 22 members voted on Saturday on behalf of the Syrian people, listening to the demands of the majority of Arabs across the region.
There will be debates about the legality and the practicality of intervention. Syria is not Libya, the Assad regime is still not as isolated as Qaddafi had become, and the regional consequences of continued conflict are unpredictable. But given the difficult choices and unrelenting bloodshed, the Arab League made the right decision. It should follow its promise on sanctions with action. If that means embargoes on loans, trade and oil deals, the regime will be hard pressed. And the League may recognise the Syrian National Council as the sole representative of the people.
Reports of Syrian army defectors using heavy weapons have increased in recent days, as have fears of an open armed conflict. The Arab League's new-found role is urgently needed. It is not too late to avert a civil war.