Arab leaders put pressure on Assad as repression in Syria continues

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The Independent Online

Middle Eastern leaders turned the screw on President Bashar al-Assad yesterday as officials from across the region met to decide whether to suspend Syria from the Arab League.

In the first show of widespread co-ordinated action among Arab rulers, diplomats called an emergency session at the League's headquarters near Cairo's Tahrir Square to debate whether to freeze Syrian membership.

It came on yet another day of violence across the country as thousands of protesters took to the streets to denounce the Assad regime. In the eastern city of Deir el-Zour security forces opened fire on the funeral of a slain activist, while in the suburbs of the capital Damascus, dozens of civilians were arrested. The United Nations says more than 3,000 people have now been killed since demonstrations against the government began in mid-March.

Some activists said that the Arab League meeting would not necessarily have any impact on Syria's Baathist regime. "The government is going to keep fighting to the last second," said Adib Shishakly, a member of the newly formed Syrian National Council (SNC) opposition group.

Earlier this month, President Assad dodged a diplomatic bullet when Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution which would have paved the way for punishing sanctions. The threat of co-ordinated Arab action will now redouble the pressure on his regime.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain have withdrawn their ambassadors from Damascus – a response to Assad's brutal crackdown during Ramadan in August – but until yesterday other Arab leaders had been reluctant to follow suit. Given how instrumental the Arab League was in toppling Colonel Gaddafi – paving the way for Nato's bombing campaign – Syria's suspension could have far-reaching effects.

Radwan Ziadeh, a prominent Syrian exile, said: "It will send a strong message to Assad that if he continues the repression then there will be consequences among the Arabs."