CAIRO (AP) — The Arab League voted Saturday to suspend Syria in four days and warned the regime 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's Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim said 18 countries agreed to the suspension, which was scheduled to take effect on Wednesday in a significant escalation of international pressure on President Bashar Assad's government. Syria, Lebanon and Yemen voted against it, and Iraq abstained.
The Arab League also will consider introducing political and economic sanctions against Syria.
"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."
The decision comes as November shapes up to be the bloodiest month yet in Syria's 8-month-old uprising, with more than 250 Syrian civilians killed so far, most as part of a siege of the rebellious city of Homs, according to activist groups.
Bin Jassim suggested that Arab League members withdraw their ambassadors from Damascus but left that up to the individual countries.
The 22-member league will monitor the situation and revisit the decision in a meeting Wednesday in the Moroccan capital Rabat, bin Jassim said, a move that appeared to give Assad time to prevent the action from being implemented.
Syria's envoy to the Arab League, Youssef Ahmed, called the decision "illegal and contrary to the league's internal charter," according to the country's state-run news agency SANA.
Ahmed was quoted as saying that Syria remains committed to its pledges to the Arab League and said Damascus is calling on the "armed opposition abroad to lay down arms, surrender, stop the violence and accept a national dialogue."
The vote was a strong message from the Cairo-based organization and showed growing impatience as violence has continued unabated since Syria agreed on Nov. 2 to an Arab-brokered peace deal that called for the Syria to halt attacks against protesters, pull tanks and armored vehicles out of cities, release political prisoners and allow journalists and rights groups into the country.
Arab nations also are eager to avoid seeing another Arab leader toppled violently and dragged through the streets, as happened to Libya's Moammar Gadhafi last month. An Arab League decision had paved the way for the U.N.-mandated no-fly zone and NATO airstrikes that eventually brought down Gadhafi, but bin Jassim stressed international intervention was not on the agenda.
"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," he said.
Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby echoed that sentiment.
"This decision reflects a lack of foreign intervention," he said. "The Arab League has been calling on Syria to stop the violence for four months and it hasn't happened."
The international community is limited in what it can do to help solve the Syrian crisis. NATO has ruled out the kind of military intervention that helped topple Gadhafi. Sanctions from the United Nations, the United States and the European Union are chipping away at the regime, but the economy has not collapsed.
The unrest could balloon into a regional disaster. Damascus' web of allegiances extends to Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah movement and Iran's Shiite theocracy. And although Syria sees Israel as the enemy, the countries have held up a fragile truce for years.
Assad already has warned the region will burn if there is any foreign intervention in his country. On Friday, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah backed up Assad and his allies in Iran, saying any war in either country would take down the Middle East.
Dozens of protesters outside the Arab League headquarters had rallied for the decision, carrying placards reading "Freedom for the Syrian people" and "Arab leaders are garbage" as they chanted for Assad's removal. They were joined by demonstrators from Yemen, protesting violent government crackdowns in their country
Even as the violence continues, the opposition has faced infighting and divisions that have prevented it from gaining the traction it needs to present a credible alternative to the regime.
The Arab League called on all factions to meet later this week to unify their message as a step toward dialogue with the Syrian government, and bin Jassim said the organization would discuss the possibility of recognizing the Syrian National Council as the official voice for the movement.
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.
Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy contributed to this report.