Arab League approves unprecedented sanctions on Syria

Syria, Tal Kalakh: An image grab taken from a YouTube video shows anti-government protesters holding a banner that reads in Arabic and English "Go out Bashar" during a pro-democracy demonstration after Friday prayers in Tal Kalakh on June 10, 2011. (AFP Photo / Youtube)
A halt to transactions with the Syrian central bank, the suspension of commercial flights and a travel ban on senior officials are among the new set of sanctions approved by the Arab League - a move Damascus has slammed as a betrayal.

At a news conference in Cairo, Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim said 19 of the League's 22 member nations approved the sanctions to “avoid any suffering for the Syrian people.”

Qatar has also warned of foreign intervention in Syria if the Arab League sanctions fail.

However, the bloc is ready to reconsider the sanctions if Syria carries out an Arab-brokered peace plan that includes sending observers to the country and pulling tanks from the streets, Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby said.

The sanctions are a huge blow for a Syrian regime that considers itself a powerhouse of Arab nationalism. The state-owned Al-Thawra newspaper ran a front-page headline Sunday saying the Arab League is calling for "economic and commercial sanctions targeting the Syrian people."  It said the measure is "unprecedented and contradicts the rules of Arab cooperation."

A day earlier the Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem, accused the Arab League of agreeing, “to involvement of foreign forces in the conflict, instead of taking all measures to prevent foreign interference.” The message came in a letter to the Arab League as ministers from the group gathered in Cairo to impose heavy sanctions on Syria, reports AFP.

Muallem emphasized that the proposed conditions for deployment of Arab observers in the country were unacceptable to Syria. According to the minister, the Arab League protocol "fully ignores the role of the Syrian state and tramples underfoot national sovereignty".

The sanctions are in response to Syria’s violent crackdown on the eight-month uprising in the country against the rule of President Bashar Assad, which the UN estimates has killed more than 3,500 people since March.

Dr. Rania Masri from the University of Balamand in Beirut says that by implementing those sanctions Arab League is basically digging its own grave.

”It is publicly declaring that it has no more legitimacy in the Arab world. It is no longer speaking for the Arab people or representing Arab interests in any way whatsoever,” she said.

Masri says that decisions such as this are mostly driven by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), especially Qatar and Saudi Arabia. She argues that it is ‘extraordinarily ironic and hypocritical’ of GCC countries and other member of The Arab League to condemn the Syrian government.

”When [there were] mass protests in Bahrain that the government responded to with brutality, the GCC countries did not ask for sanctions against the Bahraini government for these repressions. They introduced their own armed forces into Bahrain and supported the repression. So when you have these very countries condemning the repressions committed by another Arab country they lack any credibility to call for that.”