CAIRO — Arab foreign ministers and Turkey agreed a list of sweeping sanctions Sunday designed to cripple the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad who has defied pressure to halt a bloody crackdown on protests.
As another 15 civilians were reported dead in Syria, the 22-member Arab League announced an immediate ban on transactions with the Syrian government and central bank and a freeze on Syrian government assets in Arab countries.
Further measures including a ban on Syrian officials visiting any Arab country and the suspension of flights are to be implemented at a date fixed at a meeting next week.
The sanctions, announced by Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani after a meeting in Cairo, are the first time the organisation has imposed such harsh economic measures against another country in the region.
“We hope that (the Syrian regime) puts an end to the massacres so that this resolution (authorising sanctions) is not put into force,” said Sheikh Hamad, but he added that “the signs are not positive.”
He also called for “an end to the massacres, the freeing of prisoners and the withdrawal of tanks” from Syrian cities.
The violence showed no sign of abating on Sunday, with Syrian security forces accused of killing at least 15 civilians, six of them in the flashpoint region of Homs that has been under siege for several weeks.
Syrian state television said in a terse statement that the decision to impose sanctions on a member state was “an unprecedented measure” while several hundred Syrians gathered in a central Damascus square to denounce the move.
Long seen as a weak institution dominated by the region’s autocrats, the Arab League has taken on an increasingly activist role during the pro-democracy Arab Spring demonstrations of the past 12 months.
Nineteen Arab League members voted for the sanctions, but Iraq abstained and said it would refuse to implement them, while Lebanon “disassociated itself,” Sheikh Hamad said. Syria is a suspended member.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, whose country has close economic ties with Syria and a large refugee community in its western neighbour, had said beforehand that it was “not possible” to impose sanctions on Assad’s regime.
Even without Iraq’s participation, the impact is expected to be crippling on a country already facing a raft of EU and US sanctions, and which depends on its Arab neighbours for half of its exports and a quarter of its imports.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has also said his government would harmonise measures with those of the Arab League, adding that Ankara’s former ally had missed its “last chance” by failing to heed the Arab ultimatum.
“Nobody can expect Turkey and the Arab League to remain silent on the killings of civilians and the Syrian regime’s increasing oppression of innocent people,” he said.
Damascus has defied an ultimatum to accept observers under an Arab League peace plan and put an end to the eight-month crackdown which the United Nations says has killed more than 3,500 people.
“The sanctions further isolate everyone at the top,” said analyst Angus Blair from the Egypt-based investment bank Beltone Financial, who added that wavering business figures might be persuaded by the sanctions to abandon the regime.
“It makes it very difficult for figures in Syria to be seen to be close to the regime,” he said.
Iraq’s non-participation and Lebanon’s abstention were less significant than the unity of the Gulf countries, he said.
“The importance is the Gulf. They are the states that really matter here,” he said, referring to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.
Syrian Economy Minister Mohammed Nidal al-Shaar told AFP before the decision that sanctions would be “very unfortunate because the damage will be to all sides.”
In a letter to the Arab League on Saturday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem accused the organisation of seeking to “internationalise” the crisis in his country.