Arab efforts to reach a compromise with Syria over its handling of months of unrest appeared to be all but over Sunday as foreign ministers meeting in Cairo voted overwhelmingly to impose punishing sanctions on the regime of President Bashar Assad.
The unusually aggressive move by the Arab League, an organization often criticized as spineless and ineffective, came after Syria refused to halt a violent crackdown on dissent and repeatedly ignored deadlines to accept Arab observers to monitor a peace plan the league negotiated with the government this month.
The scale of the bloodshed in Syria, where the United Nations says more than 3,500 people have been killed since major protests began in March, has raised fears of civil war in a nation situated strategically at the heart of the Middle East.
The opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria said at least 40 more people were killed Saturday as the government turned its guns on centers of resistance. The claim could not be independently verified.
Assad’s government blames the unrest on armed gangs, saying that more than 1,100 security force members have been killed. The uprising began with mostly peaceful protests inspired by the rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt, but more recently some members of the opposition have been fighting back, including a group of army defectors known as the Free Syrian Army that has claimed responsibility for attacks on the military.
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, suspending cooperation with Syria’s central bank and halting funding for projects in the country.
Those steps will take effect immediately, Jassim said. Other sanctions, including a travel ban on high-ranking Syrian officials and the suspension of flights to the country, are to follow after a committee works out details.
The Arab League has already suspended Syria from the bloc for failing to implement the peace plan that the alliance forged earlier, which calls for a cease-fire by all sides, withdrawal of security forces from urban areas and dialogue with the opposition.
Syrian officials have accused the league of acting as an instrument of the United States and other Western nations, which they say are bent on military intervention.
In a letter addressed to the league before Sunday’s vote, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem called the threat of sanctions an “implicit agreement on internationalizing the situation in Syria and interference in its internal affairs.”
An Arab League vote on Libya this year helped set the stage for the Western-led bombing campaign that contributed to the ouster of longtime strongman Moammar Kadafi. But Western and Arab nations have shown little appetite for a similar campaign in Syria.
“Everything we did was to avoid foreign intervention,” Jassim said Sunday, adding that the international community could not stand by as civilians were killed.
He said Syria could still avoid sanctions if it signs a protocol allowing hundreds of Arab observers into the country. But, he added, “if we don’t act seriously, I can’t guarantee that foreign intervention won’t take place.”
Syria’s economy is already reeling from several rounds of U.S. and European sanctions, including a halt on oil imports. Turkey, once a close ally, has abandoned oil exploration plans with Syria and has said it would take additional steps in consultation with the league.
But Syria retains staunch allies, including Iran, Russia and China. Lebanon has said that it won’t impose any sanctions on its neighbor. Iraq, which has thousands of refugees in Syria, has said that it wants to consider the sanctions’ implications.
More important than the economic effect, analysts said, the sanctions strike a blow against the legitimacy of the ruling Assad family, which has dominated Syria for more than 40 years. Syria was a founding member of the league and considers itself the standard-bearer of Arab nationalism.
“If I were in President Assad’s shoes, I think I would not sleep soundly,” said Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. “Because now the circle of isolation is almost complete, even though Syria has some major allies.”
Assad’s critics hope the economic and political pressure will persuade the country’s influential business leaders and prosperous merchant classes to abandon the regime. Syria’s major economic centers, Damascus and Aleppo, have remained largely on the sidelines of the uprising.
The official Syrian Arab News Agency said large crowds turned out Sunday in Damascus, the capital, and two other centers to protest the league’s decision.
Times staff writer Zavis reported from Beirut and special correspondent Hassan from Cairo. Special correspondent Rima Marrouch in Beirut contributed to this report.