Tens of thousands of Syrians demonstrated in the capital Monday against the Arab League decision to impose crippling sanctions onPresident Bashar al-Assad’s regime, an AFP correspondent reported.
Protesters waved Syrian flags and carried giant portraits of the embattled leader as they belted nationalistic songs in Damascus’ central Sabaa Bahrat square.
“The people want Bashar al-Assad… We are your people Bashar,” chanted the protesters.
Syrian state television broadcast footage of the pro-regime rallies and slammed the Arab League describing it as an “instrument for implementing the Western and American plan against Syria.”
The sanctions, voted on Sunday as violence in Syria claimed 23 new lives, will affect “all Syrians” not just target the regime, it said.
“The Arab League is punishing the Syrian people for their positions,” added the ruling Baath Party’s newspaper Al-Baath.
Many schools were closed Monday to allow students to attend the rallies and the official SANA news agency said protests also took place in Syria’s second city and economic hub Aleppo and in Hasake, also in the north.
The Arab League on Sunday announced sweeping sanctions against Damascus to punish Assad’s regime for failing to bring an end to the deadly crackdown on anti-government protests that began in mid-march.
The UN estimates that more than 3,500 people have been killed in the violence.
The sanctions include an immediate ban on transactions with the Syrian government and central bank and a freeze on Syrian government assets in Arab countries.
The Arab bloc also banned Syrian officials from visiting any Arab country and called for a suspension of all flights from Syria to Arab countries to be implemented on a date that will be fixed at a meeting next week.
Nineteen of the Arab League’s 22 members voted for the sanctions, but Iraq abstained and said it would refuse to implement them, while Lebanon “disassociated itself,” Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani.
Syria was suspended from the Arab League earlier this month.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, who has denounced the sanctions as an Arab League attempt to “internationalise” the Syrian crisis, was expected to hold a press conference later Monday to formally address the issue.
State television said in a terse statement after Sunday’s vote that the Arab League’s against a member state was “an unprecedented measure.”
This is the first time the Arab League enforces sanctions of this magnitude on one of its members.
The Arab League sanctions are likely to be crippling for Syria, which already faces a raft of EU, US and Turkish measures.
The Local Coordination Committees, an umbrella group of Syrian activists, welcomed the move on Sunday but warned that Damascus could get around the sanctions.
“Economic sanctions will have no impact on the Syrian regime unless there is a mechanism by which the implementation of sanctions can be strictly monitored and leave no opportunity for their circumvention,” it said in a statement.