CAIRO -- The Arab League voted Saturday to suspend Syria in four days and warned it could face sanctions if it does not end its bloody crackdown against anti-government protesters.
The decision was a symbolic blow to a nation that prides itself on being a powerhouse of Arab nationalism.
Qatar Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim said 18 countries agreed to the suspension, which will take effect on Wednesday. Syria, Lebanon and Yemen voted against it, and Iraq abstained. The Arab League also will introduce political and economic sanctions against Syria, he said.
Violence has continued unabated since Syria agreed on Nov. 2 to an Arab-brokered peace deal that called for the Syria to halt violence against protesters, pull tanks and armored vehicles out of cities, release political prisoners and allow journalists and rights groups into the country.
"Syria is a dear country for all of us and it pains us to make this decision," bin Jassim said. "We hope there will be a brave move from Syria to stop the violence and begin a real dialogue toward real reform."
In a nod to concerns that the decision could pave the way to international intervention as occurred in Libya, bin Jassim stressed that "no one is talking about a no-fly zone, people are trying to mix up the cases. None of us is talking about this kind of decision."
Dozens of protesters outside had rallied for the decision, carrying placards reading "Freedom for the Syrian people" and "Arab leaders are garbage" as they chanted for the removal of Syrian President Bashar Assad. They were joined by demonstrators from Yemen, protesting violent government crackdowns in their country.
The decision comes as November is shaping up to be the bloodiest month yet in Syria's 8-month-old uprising. More than 250 Syrian civilians have been killed in the past 11 days as the regime besieges the rebellious city of Homs.
The U.N. estimates some 3,500 people have been killed in the Syrian crackdown since the uprising began eight months ago, inspired by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.
The bloodshed has spiked dramatically in recent weeks amid signs that more protesters are taking up arms to protect themselves, changing the face of what has been a largely peaceful movement. Many fear the change plays directly into the hands of the regime by giving the military a pretext to crack down with increasing force.
Although the crackdown has led to broad international isolation, Assad appears to have a firm grip on power.
Assad, and his father who ruled Syria before him, stacked key security and military posts with members of their minority Alawite sect over the past 40 years, ensuring loyalty by melding the fate of the army and the regime. As a result, the army leadership will likely protect the regime at all costs, for fear it will be persecuted if the country's Sunni majority gains the upper hand. Most of the army defectors so far appear to be lower-level Sunni conscripts.
Syria blames the bloodshed on "armed gangs" and extremists acting out a foreign agenda to destabilize the regime.
The government has largely sealed off the country from foreign journalists and prevented independent reporting, making it difficult to confirm events on the ground.
Key sources of information are amateur videos posted online and details gathered by witnesses and activist groups who then contact the media, often at great personal risk.