Damascus rejects 'unprecedented' step, as Qatari prime minister says blockade will avert wider international intervention and only an end to Syria massacre can stop embargoes.
Arab League agrees to sweeping sanctions on Syria
Having already suspended Damascus for not implementing an agreement to halt bloodshed and a peaceful transition to democracy, the Arab League voted overwhelmingly to further isolate Syria after it refused to sign a protocol allowing observers unimpeded access to protest centres. Iraq and Lebanon both said they would not take part in the blockade.
Under the sanctions, leading figures in President Bashar Al Assad's regime are to be banned from travelling to other Arab states and their personal assets in those countries will be frozen. Similar steps have already been taken by the European Union, Switzerland and the United States.
Turkey, a multibillion-dollar trading partner with Damascus, has indicated it will follow suit and "harmonise" with the Arab League.
Announcing the measures in Cairo yesterday, the Qatari prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, also said deals with Syria's central bank would be stopped and economic trade and investments involving the Syrian government suspended with immediate effect.
In addition, commercial flights between Damascus and Arab capitals will be stopped, although no date has been fixed for that measure to come into force.
"We hope that [the Syrian regime] puts an end to the massacres so that this resolution [authorising sanctions] is not put into force," Sheikh Al Thani said, adding "the signs are not positive".
He justified the steps in part as means of averting wider international intervention, saying that unless regional powers showed they were "serious" in dealing with the Syrian crisis, pressure would only mount for outside involvement.
"All the work that we are doing is to avoid this interference," he said.
The sanctions will reverberate in the Gulf with several companies forced to reconsider their ties to the country. Rotana Hotels and the Jumeirah Group in the hotel industry and Qatar National Bank and Bahrain's Al Baraka Banking Group are a few of the companies and institutions that have a presence in Syria.
Some Gulf businesses - including Dubai Aluminium and Emirates Aluminium - has already stopped shipments to the country.
The tourism and oil sectors are also likely to be hit hard.
Syria, angered by the Arab League's critical stance since its suspension from the group earlier this month, rejected the moves. State media bluntly called them "unprecedented", "illegal" and part of a western plot designed to further Israeli interests.
The foreign minister, Walid Moallem, who was expected to hold a press conference today, had accused the league of actively trying to "call for foreign interference instead of warding it off", citing that as a reason why the protocol on access for observers had not been signed before a deadline expired on Friday.
While 19 of the Arab League's 22 members endorsed the sanctions, Iraq abstained from the vote and Lebanon "disassociated itself" from the decision, according to the Qatari prime minister.
Support from Baghdad and Beirut, which have close relationships with the Syrian regime and its main ally, Iran, may prove a crucial economic lifeline for Damascus, analysts say, preventing it from complete encirclement.
Sanctions aren't the only tool against Assad, page a15
Pro-regime figures also insist that, with long experience of facing international trade embargoes, the country will quickly adapt to the new circumstances and find ways to remain afloat.
Opposition activists inside Syria said they supported the Arab League move but also echoed government warnings that ordinary people, not just regime members, would feel the effects.
"The sanctions will have a real impact, and it underlines how isolated the regime is but it's true that the normal people are already beginning to suffer from the bad economic situation," said an opposition figure, on condition of anonymity.
He said the price of cooking gas in some parts of the country had more than doubled from US$7 (Dh26) to $20, while increasingly scarce heating oil is sold on the black market at almost double the state-regulated price.
Electricity shortages, inflation of food costs and rising unemployment are all taking an increasing toll. Wealthier families have bought generators to power their homes during the regular hour-long electricity outages in Damascus and the surrounding countryside.
The activist also stressed that the sanctions would not be enough to decisively alter the struggle between pro-and anti-regime blocs.
"The regime is still strong and will survive these sanctions, it can survive a long time even under these circumstances, we must be realistic about that," he said.
Violence continued yesterday according to the government and human-rights groups. Sana, Syria's official news agency, said nine security personnel killed in the restive central provinces of Homs and Hama were buried yesterday. It also reported that 12 "gunmen" were shot dead by the authorities in Homs and that a "terrorist's den in the city" had been raided, with a large stockpile of weapons seized and "many" arrests made.
There was also fighting in the northern province of Idleb, it said, with security patrols fighting off armed attackers, making arrests and killing "gunmen".
Human-rights monitors said at least 15 civilians were fatally shot by security forces yesterday, six of them in Homs and six in Rankuss, near the capital. At least two civilians were also shot while taking part in a funeral in the eastern desert city of Deir Ezzor, activists said.
More than 3,500 people have been killed since the uprising began in March, according to the most recent United Nations count, although activists and human-rights groups all say the real tally is much higher.
Syrian authorities insist the figure has been exaggerated and that most of the casualties are either security personnel of members of "armed gangs".
Mr Al Assad insists his country is facing a violent insurgency, backed by foreign powers, which have long been angered by his opposition to Israel and alliances with Tehran and Hizbollah in Lebanon.
Protesters and opposition political groups acknowledge a growing use of arms by anti-regime groups but maintain the uprising is a home-grown and overwhelmingly peaceful call for greater civil liberties and freedoms.