France recalls ambassador to Syria as Arab League suspension takes effect
Activists say Free Syrian Army fighters fired machine guns and rockets at an Air Force Intelligence complex near Damascus, bringing the country closer to an all-out civil war.
France recalled its ambassador to Damascus as Syria's suspension from the Arab League took effect on Wednesday, intensifying diplomatic pressure on President Bashar Assad to halt a violent eight-month-old crackdown on protests.
Syrian army defectors attacked an intelligence complex on the edge of Damascus in a high-profile assault that showed how close the popular uprising is to sliding into armed conflict.
Hours after the Arab League suspension took effect, Assad supporters threw stones and debris at the embassy of the United Arab Emirates and smeared its walls with graffiti, witnesses said. The embassy is in one of the most secure districts of the capital, near Assad's home and offices.
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said France was working with the Arab League on a draft resolution at the United Nations.
Last month Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have condemned Damascus, but since then the normally cautious Arab League has suspended Syria for failing to implement an Arab peace plan.
"New violence is taking place and that has led to the closure of the missions in Aleppo and Latakia and to recall our ambassador to Paris," Juppe said, referring to weekend attacks by pro-Assad demonstrators on French diplomatic premises, as well as Turkish and Saudi missions, in Syria.
Arab foreign ministers met in Rabat for an Arab-Turkish forum, where a Syrian flag was placed by an empty chair.
Turkey, now a fierce critic of its former ally, said Syria had failed to honor an Arab peace plan to halt the unrest. Speaking through a translator, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu compared Syria with Libya, where rebels captured, humiliated and killed Muammar Gaddafi last month.
"The regime should meet the demands of its people," he said. "The collective massacres in Syria and... the bloodshed cannot continue like this."
In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi criticized the Arab League for "acting in a way that will hurt the security of the region". He told the official news agency IRNA that Syria, an ally of Iran since 1980, had repeatedly pledged to meet legitimate popular demands and enact reforms.
"Unfortunately, some countries believe that they are outside the crisis... but they are mistaken because if a crisis happens they will be entangled by its consequences."
Saudi Arabia, which is eager to loosen the ties between its regional rival Iran and Syria, said the Arab League was acting in Syria's interest, not interfering in its affairs.
"What's important is not about suspending or not suspending (Syria from the League), it's stopping the bloodshed, starting the dialogue, and withdrawing troops from Syrian cities," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told Al Arabiya channel.
Western countries have tightened sanctions on Syria and on Monday Jordan's King Abdullah became the first Arab head of state to urge Assad to quit after ensuring a smooth handover.
In the early months of the uprising, attempts by security forces to crush mainly peaceful protests accounted for most of the violence. But since August there has been a growing number of reports of army defectors and armed civilians fighting back.
Activists said Free Syrian Army fighters fired machineguns and rockets at a large Air Force Intelligence complex on the northern edge of the capital at about 2:30 a.m. (0030 GMT).
A gunfight ensued and helicopters circled over the complex, on the Damascus-Aleppo highway. There were no immediate reports of casualties. Syrian state media did not mention the attack.
A Western diplomat in Damascus described the assault as "hugely symbolic and tactically new," saying that if the reported details were true it would be "much much more coordinated than anything we have seen before."
"To actually attack a base like this is something else, and so close to Damascus as well," said the diplomat, adding that fighting in recent weeks involving army deserters in the town of Rastan and the city of Homs resembled a localised civil war.
"It's not a nationwide civil war, but in very specific locations, it is looking like that," said the diplomat.
The Free Syrian Army was set up by deserters and is led by Colonel Riad Asaad, who is based in southern Turkey. It announced this week that it had formed a "temporary military council" of nine defecting officers, led by Asaad.
The statement said the Syrian Free Army aimed to "bring down the regime and protect citizens from the repression... and prevent chaos as soon as the regime falls", adding that it would form a military court to try "members of the regime who are proven to have been involved in killing operations."
Syrian television showed thousands of Assad's supporters rallying in Damascus and Latakia to mark the day his father Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1970. It said the crowds were also voicing their rejection of the Arab League's decision.
"God, Syria, Bashar, that's all!" shouted demonstrators in central Damascus, who turned out in heavy rain to wave flags and posters of the president. Two large posters of Assad and his father hung from a building. "Neither rain nor sanctions will stop us expressing our nationalism," the television said.
The Arab League has stopped short of calling for Assad's departure or proposing any Libya-style military intervention, but its ostracism of Syria is a blow to a country whose ruling Baath party puts Arab nationalism at the centre of its credo.
Syrian authorities have banned most independent media. They blame the unrest on "armed terrorist gangs" and foreign-backed militants who they say have killed 1,100 soldiers and police. Hundreds of people have been killed this month, one of the bloodiest periods of the revolt.
Syria says it remains committed to the Arab peace plan, which calls for the withdrawal of troops from urban areas, the release of prisoners and a dialogue with the opposition.
State media said more than 1,000 prisoners, including prominent dissident Kamal Labwani, were freed on Tuesday. But human rights campaigners say tens of thousands have been detained since anti-Assad protests began.
"קראו כתבה זו בעברית: עריקים תקפו יעדי צבא ברחבי סוריה; דודו של אסד מבטיח: "אנחנו נפיל אותו