REPORTING FROM CAIRO AND BEIRUT -- In a stinging rebuke to President Bashar Assad, the Arab League voted Saturday to suspend Syria’s membership if his government does not take steps within four days to implement a peace plan designed to end months of unrest in the country.
The 22-member league warned that Syria, whose economy is already reeling under the weight of international sanctions because of its crackdown on opposition protests, could face further economic and political penalties from Arab nations.
"Syria is dear country for all of us, and it pains us to make this decision," Qatar’s foreign minister, Hamad bin Jassim, told reporters afterward.
He suggested that Arab nations withdraw their ambassadors from the Syrian capital, Damascus, a step that some, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have already taken.
The suspension takes effect Wednesday, a delay that would appear to be designed to give Damascus a final chance to comply with a league-brokered peace plan that was approved by Arab League ministers on Nov. 2.
The league road map mandates that Syria withdraw armed forces from populated areas, release political prisoners and begin a dialogue with opponents, among other steps. The opposition is also required to cease hostilities.
The United Nations estimates that 3,500 people have been killed in almost eight months of bloodshed.
The action by a regional Arab group that is often criticized as feckless underscored the gravity of events in Syria.
The protests and violence have undermined the autocratic rule of Assad and raised the prospect of civil war in the strategically situated nation, which borders Israel, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
Syria’s close allies, Iran and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah movement, have issued stern warnings against foreign intervention in Syria.
An Arab League vote helped set the stage for the Western-led bombing campaign in Libya that led to the ouster of Moammar Kadafi after more than 40 years in power. But Qatar’s Jassim insisted that Saturday's move was not a prelude to intervention in Syria.
"No one is talking about a no-fly zone; people are trying to mix up the cases," Jassim told reporters.
Syria’s Arab League representative, Yousef Ahmad, denounced the suspension, calling it a "eulogy for Arab common action" and a "blatant announcement" that the league was "subordinate to U.S.-Western agendas," the official Syrian news agency reported.
Syria maintains that it is complying with the league-brokered peace pact, releasing more than 500 prisoners and enacting an amnesty for gunmen who surrender and "have no blood on their hands."
-- Amro Hassan in Cairo and Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut
Photo: The Syrian delegate to the Arab League, Yousef Ahmad, attends the emergency meeting on Syria at the Arab League Headquarters in Cairo on Saturday. Credit: Khaled Elfiqi / EPA