Syria faces crippling sanctions as it defies Arab League deadline

The killings continue as President Assad refuses demands for observers to be let into the country

Syria's isolated Assad regime has defied an Arab League deadline to allow an observer mission into the country, opening the way for the pan-Arab body to impose crippling sanctions.

The deadline passed as erstwhile ally Turkey said that it could no longer tolerate the bloodshed in Syria, warning that it would join sanctions alongside Arab powers if President Bashar al-Assad did not end a crackdown on opponents to his rule.

"There are steps we can take in consultation with the Arab League," Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters. "I want to say clearly we have no more tolerance for the bloodshed in Syria. The attitude of friendly and fraternal countries on this subject is clear."

Since pro-democracy protests began in March, the death toll from the government crackdown has exceeded 3,500, most of them civilians. That violence continued yesterday, with at least four protesters killed by security forces.

In vowing to crush the protests, Mr Assad has painted the uprising as a foreign-backed insurgency, rather than a peaceful revolt of the type that has toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia. But his response has turned a largely peaceful uprising into an increasingly potent threat to his regime as defecting soldiers joined by armed civilians turn on the security forces.

In an unusual admission, the regime confirmed yesterday that rebels had killed 10 of its personnel, including six élite military pilots. The military immediately blamed "foreign elements", bolstering its claim that Syria is facing an armed insurrection.

The Arab League, which recently suspended Syria in a humiliating affront to Mr Assad, has demanded that the government allow an international observer mission to enter the country to monitor the implementation of a 2 November peace plan that called for an end to the bloodshed. Although Damascus agreed to the deal, it has failed to heed it and hundreds of civilians have been killed in the last month alone.

The League has taken an uncharacteristically robust stance on Syria and had given it a deadline of 1100 GMT yesterday to allow in 500 observers or face a vote on sanctions, which could include the suspension of commercial flights, the freezing of government bank accounts and deals with the central bank. Syria had agreed to allow in just 40 monitors. But sources in the 22-member bloc reportedly confirmed that the deadline had been extended until the end of the day and that in practice Syria could still avoid sanctions if it responds before the Arab League meeting scheduled for later today.

With Syria already hurting from US and European sanctions on oil exports and some state businesses, the Arab League will want to make sure that its measures target the regime, and not Syria's population, making it more complicated to impose measures such as a curb on trade.

The International Crisis Group has warned that the Syrian uprising was entering its most deadly phase yet. "The crisis may or may not have entered its final phase, but it undoubtedly has entered its most dangerous one to date," the NGO said in a report.

"Many in Syria and abroad are now banking on the regime's imminent collapse and wagering that all then will be for the better. That is a luxury and optimism they cannot afford."