REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- Arab efforts to reach a compromise with Syria over its bloody crackdown on dissent appeared to be all but over Sunday as foreign ministers meeting in Cairo voted overwhelmingly to impose punishing sanctions against the embattled regime of President Bashar Assad.
The rare move by the Arab League, an organization often criticized as spineless and ineffective, came after Syria repeatedly ignored deadlines for accepting Arab observers to monitor a peace agreed to earlier this month.
Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheik Hamad bin Jassim al Thani, said 19 of the league’s 22 members approved the sanctions, which include freezing government assets, halting funding for projects in Syria and suspending cooperation with the country’s central bank.
It was a humiliating blow for Syria, a founding member of the league, which it accuses of acting as the tool of the United States and other Western governments.
In a letter addressed to the league before Sunday’s vote, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem called the threat of sanctions “implicit agreement on internationalizing the situation in Syria and interference in its internal affairs."
Syria has already faced several rounds of U.S. and European sanctions that are taking a toll on its economy. But it retains staunch allies, including Iran, Russia and China. Lebanon has said that it won't impose any sanctions against its neighbor.
Pressure is mounting on Syria to halt the crackdown on anti-government protesters and insurgents who have taken up arms against Assad’s regime.
The Arab League has already suspended Syria for failing to implement a peace plan the alliance negotiated with the regime, which calls for a withdrawal of security forces from urban areas and dialogue with the opposition.
The United Nations says more than 3,500 people have been killed since mid-March, a figure disputed by Syria. The Assad regime blames the unrest on Islamic militants and what it describes as armed gangs. Authorities say more than 1,100 security force members have also been killed
-- Alexandra Zavis
Photo: Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim al Thani, center, joins other members of the Arab League and observers as the alliance approved new sanctions against Syria on Sunday. Credit: Khaled Elfiqi / European Pressphoto Agency