, RABAT, Nov 17 – Arab leaders gave Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad three days to halt his “bloody repression” of anti-regime protests the UN says has killed more than 3,500 people, or risk sanctions.
It came as a raid by army defectors on a military base highlighted the scale of the challenge to Assad at home but prompted the United States to warn that violence by the opposition played into his regime’s hands.
Rabat withdrew its envoy to Damascus after the embassies of Morocco and the United Arab Emirates were attacked by pro-Assad crowds eight months into a pro-democracy uprising.
With its foreign ministers meeting in Rabat saying their patience was running out, the 22-member Arab League gave Assad’s regime “three days to stop the bloody repression”, Qatar’s prime minister said.
“But if Damascus does not agree to cooperate with the League, sanctions will be adopted against Syria,” Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani told a news conference.
Arab states had “almost reached the end of the line” with Damascus, he added.
“The Syrian government must agree to Arab League decisions and stop the bloodbath in Syria,” he said. “We do not interfere in Syria’s internal affairs… but the bloodbath must be stopped.”
The League decided at the weekend to suspend Syria, which snubbed Wednesday’s meeting also attended by Turkey, its northern neighbour.
In a statement issued after a Turkish-Arab cooperation forum, ministers declared they were “against all foreign intervention” but said it was time for urgent measures.
“The forum declares that it is necessary to stop the bloodshed and to spare Syrian citizens from new acts of violence and killing, and demands that urgent measures are taken to ensure the protection of civilians,” a statement said.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said it was “not surprising” that the opposition is resorting to violence.
“We don’t condone it in any way, shape or form but… it’s the brutal tactics of Assad and his regime in dealing with what began as a non-violent movement (that) is now taking Syria down a very dangerous path,” he said.
“We think that this kind of violence… it really plays into Assad’s and his regime’s hands when this becomes violent,” the spokesman warned.
Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi said “everything must be done to stop the ongoing bloodshed in Syria.”
He said he hoped Arab moves to send about 500 observers to Syria would bear fruit within days.
As the ministers met, pro-Assad protesters attacked the Moroccan and UAE embassies in Damascus, officials said.
Ambassador Mohammed Khassasi told AFP between 100 and 150 demonstrators pelted the Moroccan embassy with eggs and stones and stripped it of its flag.
Morocco later recalled its ambassador from Damascus “to protest against a system that fails to renew itself,” Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri said.
“The regime of Bashar al-Assad does not seem to listen, notably to outside efforts including those by the Arab League to settle the problem of violence.”
The UAE also condemned the attacks and France also recalled its ambassador to Syria.
On Saturday, hundreds of angry demonstrators attacked the Damascus embassies of France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Turkey, once a close ally of Syria, has become increasingly outspoken in its criticism of Assad’s regime.
“The cost for the Syrian administration of not fulfilling the promises it made to the Arab League is its isolation in the Arab world as well,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Arab counterparts.
“It is not possible for any administration to win the fight against its own people.”
The unprecedented movement against Assad’s rule had been spearheaded by peaceful demonstrators but, in recent months, deserters have organised themselves into a Free Syrian Army (FSA) that has inflicted growing losses on the regular armed forces.
Wednesday’s attack on an intelligence base near Damascus was one of the FSA’s most spectacular operations to date.
“The Free Army struck with rockets and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) the headquarters of air force intelligence which is located at the entrance of Damascus,” said the Local Coordination Committees, an activist network.
There was no immediate word on casualties.
The FSA also announced it was forming a temporary military council to “bring down the current regime, protect Syrian civilians from its oppression, protect private and public property and prevent chaos and acts of revenge when it falls.”
On the ground, civilians and army defectors were killed in various parts of the country, while a number of soldiers were also killed and wounded.
Friends and family, meanwhile confirmed that Rafah Nashed, Syria’s first practising female psychoanalyst, had been among 1,180 prisoners released by Damascus on Tuesday.
Prior to her arrest in September, she had hosted meetings where Syrians could talk about their fears in the face of the deadly security crackdown.