Arab League stops short of suspending Syria, urges dialogue

CAIRO/AMMAN (Reuters) – Arab foreign ministers  stopped short of suspending Syria from their regional  organisation yesterday over its military crackdown on dissent,  instead urging the government and opposition to negotiate an end  to the violence.

“We will call all of the parties of the opposition and  government to hold a dialogue within 15 days,” the League’s  Secretary General Nabil Elaraby said after the meeting. It  should be held at Arab League headquarters and a Syria-based  committee would be set up to work to end violence.

Bashar al-Assad

Disappointed protesters began banging on the doors of the  Arab League building as Qatar’s Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim  al-Thani read out the decision.

“The people demand the suspension of Syria’s membership at  the Arab League!” the protesters chanted.

Initial reaction from Syria was also negative. “Syria has reservations on the call by the League for a  comprehensive dialogue to take place at its headquarters and  says it is capable of running its own affairs and security,”  Syrian state television said.

Arab governments were silent for months while Syrian  President Bashar al-Assad’s troops tried to put down the  uprising with tanks and machineguns.

But the country is now in danger of descending into a civil  war that could destabilise its neighbours.

Arab states have demanded an end to the bloodshed and called  for political reform but do not agree on how to apply pressure.

A permanent delegate to the League told Reuters earlier that  the emergency meeting of the ministers would consider suspending  Syria’s membership but that some states opposed such a move.

The United Nations says 3,000 people have died in the  crackdown including at least 187 children.

Thousands of Syrian troops opened fire in the resort town of  Zabadani on the border with Lebanon on Sunday, residents and  activists said, a day after heavy fighting in the area between  army defectors and loyalist forces.

More than 100 civil society groups issued a collective  appeal to the League’s Secretary General Nabil Elaraby to  isolate Syria’s government and cooperate with United Nations  investigations of alleged human rights abuses.

“I met with all parties of the opposition and they all said  they were against suspending Syria’s membership as that would  cut off all links between Syria and the Arab League,” Elaraby  told reporters.

Assad has intensified his crackdown on protests demanding  his resignation.

Russia and China joined forces this month to veto a  European-drafted U.N. Security Council resolution condemning  Syria’s government over the crackdown, drawing condemnation from  the United States and its Western allies.

Syria’s ambassador to the League, Youssef Ahmed, told Arab  ministers the timing of Sunday’s meeting was “strange and  suspicious”.

“We hope it is not connected in one way or another to the  failure of the United States and its European allies against  Syria in the Security Council, although we believe that to be  the case,” he said.

Qatar’s al-Thani denied the meeting, called by Arab Gulf  states, was a response to diplomatic pressure.

“I assure you that the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council)  countries, when they asked for the meeting, did not ask for it  under any agendas or dictates from outside but because they care  for Syria and for the people of Syria,” he said.

Before the meeting, 121 civil society groups urged Arab  leaders to protect Syrians from a government they accuse of  trying to stir sectarian tension and provoke a civil war.

“The continued failure to respond to the mounting crisis in  Syria will fundamentally delegitimise Arab leadership across the  region,” they said in the open letter to Elaraby.

In a consultative session ahead of their main meeting at the  League on Sunday, ministers agreed to call again for an end to  the bloodshed but “disagreed on the mechanism to achieve that”,  an unnamed diplomat told Egyptian state news agency MENA.

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