Arab League's Syria Suspension Could Spur UN Action

In an emergency meeting on Saturday, the Arab League voted to suspend Syria, warning that the country could face sanctions if it does not end its brutal crackdown on protestors. Meanwhile, NATO leaders say a Libya-style military intervention is out of the question. NPR's Kelly McEvers reports on what other choices remain.

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The Arab League has voted to suspend Syria four days from now. The group warned that the country could face sanctions if it fails to end its brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters. November so far has been the bloodiest month in the Syrian uprising. Some 250 people have died. The League initiative is the strongest statement yet by the international community. NPR's Kelly McEvers reports on what the decision means.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: The Arab League's decision today is just the kind of strong statement the U.S. was looking for on Syria. Speaking to lawmakers in Washington this week, the State Department's Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman said it's time for the Arab League to step up the pressure on the Syrian regime.

JEFFREY FELTMAN: The regime must be judged by its actions, not by its words. The killing has continued unabated. And we urge our Arab partners to condemn the regime and assume a greater role in building international pressure, including at the UN.

MCEVERS: The idea is that a strong condemnation from the Arab League could pave the way for a resolution from the UN Security Council that blames the Syrian regime for the escalation of violence in the country. Last month, Russia and China vetoed such a resolution. Russia opposes a resolution because Syria has long been its main ally in the Middle East. Russia sells arms to Syria and still maintains a naval base there. China fears instability in a region that sells it oil. Both countries are loathe to see a UN mandate to protect civilians turn into a mandate for a regime change, as they believe was the case in Libya. That's why any UN resolution on Syria would have to be much milder than the one condemning Libya, says Syria researcher Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group.

PETER HARLING: If the objective is to pass a resolution, I think you have to aim low. That's the only way of achieving any kind of result.

MCEVERS: Aiming low, Harling says, means no new sanctions, no referral of Syrian regime members to the International Criminal Court and no groundwork for regime change.

HARLING: A resolution that blames the regime for escalating the repression and pushing the protest movement to the brink in terms of responding in a violent way, I think that could succeed.

MCEVERS: Harling says this kind of resolution would further isolate the Syrian regime and might make it stop the violence. But what if it doesn't? What if, like many suggest, the Syrian regime is ready to fight, to what people here in the region call the last drop of blood?

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

MCEVERS: Protesters in Syria recently called for a no-fly zone over embattled parts of the country. This would have been unthinkable in Syria just a few months before. But the Syrian military has mostly refrained from attacking protesters from the air. Like a UN resolution, a no-fly zone would be more symbolic than anything. NATO's first move in Libya was a no-fly zone. So far, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen says NATO is uninterested in any such move in Syria.

SECRETARY GENERAL ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: As regards Syria, my answer is very short: No, NATO has no intention whatsoever to intervene in Syria. I can completely rule that out.

MCEVERS: That could change, says Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations. What's missing for now, though, is what he calls a decision-forcing point, a major humanitarian crisis that's well-portrayed in the media.

MICAH ZENKO: In Kosovo, it was Racak. In Bosnia, it was Srebrenia. In Libya, it was Benghazi.

MCEVERS: That's where Moammar Gadhafi pledged to hunt down the opposition and kill them like rats. In Syria, Zenko says, you don't see open threats like that. Plus, even though the overall number of those killed is high, the day-to-day numbers remain relatively low. Syrian President Bashar al Assad, he says, has learned from other dictator's mistakes. Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Beirut.

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