Published November 13, 2011
BEIRUT – Tens of thousands of Syrian government supporters poured into the streets Sunday to protest an Arab League vote to suspend the country's membership, as Turkey sent planes to evacuate diplomatic staff and their families after a night of attacks on embassies.
Facing growing isolation, the Syrian government called for an urgent Arab summit to discuss the country's spiraling political unrest and invited Arab League officials to visit before its membership suspension was to take effect on Wednesday.
In a significant concession, the government said the Arab officials could bring any civilian or military observers they deem appropriate to oversee implementation of an Arab League plan for ending the bloodshed.
The 22-member bloc's vote on Saturday was a stinging rebuke to a regime that prides itself as a bastion of Arab nationalism and left Syria increasingly isolated over its crackdown on an eight-month uprising that the U.N. estimates has killed more than 3,500 people since mid-March.
The violence continued Sunday, with activists reporting at least 11 people killed in shootings by security forces in several parts of the country.
The Local Coordination Committees activist network said at least four of the deaths occurred in the central city of Hama when security forces fired on a group of opposition protesters who infiltrated a pro-government rally in the area.
Sunday's protests in support of the government drew large numbers in the capital and four other cities -- a turnout helped by the closure of businesses and schools.
"You Arab leaders are the tails of Obama," read one banner held by protesters accusing the Arab League of bowing to pressure from the U.S. president.
Thousands of people carried red, black and white Syrian flags and posters of President Bashar Assad in a Damascus square. Similar demonstrations were held in the cities of Aleppo, Latakia, Tartous and Hasakeh.
The Syrian leader asserts that extremists pushing a foreign agenda to destabilize Syria are behind the country's unrest, rather than true reform seekers aiming to open the country's autocratic political system. Sunday's demonstrators accused Arab countries of being complicit with the purported conspiracy.
The government called the Arab League decision "illegal," claiming it was intended to set the stage for foreign military intervention like in Libya.
However, the offer to allow a visit by an Arab League ministerial committee and accompanying monitors appeared to signal some will to try to implement an Arab League-brokered deal for ending the violence that the government has so far seemed unwilling or unable to do. The Nov. 2 deal calls for Syria to halt attacks on protesters, pull tanks out of cities and hold talks with the opposition.
There was no immediate reaction from Arab League officials on the Syrian invitation. Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby, on a visit to Libya, demanded immediate implementation of the Arab peace initiative.
Youssef Ahmed, Syria's ambassador to the Arab League, said the official request for an emergency meeting was on its way to the organization and that Syria was awaiting a response.
Iraq's representative with the Arab League has offered Baghdad as a location for the meeting if it is approved.
An Iraqi government spokesman said the decision to suspend Syria from the Arab League over the country's bloody crackdown of an eight-month uprising may make matters worse.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a statement Sunday that the suspension will complicate the situation in Syria because the League will lose all communication channels with Damascus.
The Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad fears that regime change in Syria may mean that a Sunni-dominated government hostile to Baghdad takes over.
But members of the Syrian opposition rejoiced and saw the Arab vote to suspend Syria as a step toward greater recognition for their movement.
"This gives strong legitimacy to our cause. ... We consider this decision to be a victory for the Syrian revolution," Bassma Kodmani, a spokeswoman for the Syrian National Council opposition group, told The Associated Press.
Hours after the Arab League vote, pro-regime demonstrators in Syria assaulted the diplomatic offices of countries critical of the Syrian government, including break-ins at the Saudi and Qatari embassies and attacks at Turkish diplomatic posts across the country.
The overnight embassy attacks are likely to stoke anger in Arab states against the regime in Damascus. Arab disapproval in itself may not seriously damage President Assad's hold on power, but if Syria further antagonizes Gulf states, it risks having them build up the Syrian opposition into a unified body that can win international recognition, as happened during Libya's civil war this year.
Syrian security forces had confronted Saturday night's protesters at embassies with batons and tear gas but were unable to stop a group from breaking into the Qatari embassy and bringing down the Qatari flag and replacing it with the Syrian flag. Others entered Saudi Arabia's embassy compound, broke windows and ransacked some areas, the kingdom's media reported.
The kingdom strongly condemned the attack in a Foreign Ministry statement and said it held the Syrian authorities responsible for protecting its interests.
Saudi King Abdullah, who has condemned Assad's crackdown, had already recalled the Saudi ambassador to Syria in August. Kuwait and Bahrain have also recalled their ambassadors.
Protesters also tried to break into the Turkish Embassy in Damascus Saturday and into the country's consulates in the cities of Aleppo and Latakia, Turkey's state-run Anatolia news agency reported. Turkey is not a member of the Arab League but has also been sharply critical of Syria's crackdown, and Turkey's foreign minister welcomed the League vote.
Turkey on Sunday sent a plane to Damascus to evacuate the families of its diplomats as well as nonessential staff, Anatolia reported. The Turkish Foreign Ministry also said Turkey summoned Syria's charge d'affaires who was given a formal protest note demanding protection for its diplomatic missions.
France also said it had summoned Syria's ambassador to "remind" him of Syria's international obligations, after demonstrators tried to attack an honorary French consulate in Latakia and another French office in Aleppo.
On Sunday, hundreds of baton-carrying Syrian riot police in helmets ringed the U.S., Qatari, Saudi and Turkish embassies -- all located in the capital's upscale Abu Rummaneh district. Three fire trucks were parked in front of the Turkish Embassy. The Turkish and Qatari embassies were closed for the day but the Saudi Embassy was operating, an operator said.