Arab League meeting - AFP - November 2011
Nabil Al-Arabi at the Arab League conference last week. Photo by AFP
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On Saturday, the Arab League suspended Syria and called on its army to stop killing civilians in a surprise move that turned up the heat on President Bashar Assad.

At a meeting in Cairo, the League said it will impose economic and political sanctions on Syria's government and has appealed to member states to withdraw their ambassadors. It will also call a meeting of Syrian opposition parties.

"We were criticized for taking a long time but this was out of our concern for Syria," Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani told reporters at the League's headquarters in Cairo. "We needed to have a majority to approve those decisions."

Syria's representative at the Arab League said the decision was "not worth the ink it was written with."

U.S. President Barack Obama praised the League's decision. and France said it was time for international bodies to take more action.

"After the Assad regime flagrantly failed to keep its commitments, the Arab League has demonstrated leadership in its effort to end the crisis and hold the Syrian government accountable," Obama said in a statement. "These significant steps expose the increasing diplomatic isolation of a regime that has systematically violated human rights and repressed peaceful protests."

Syria's suspension is seen as an invitation for Western states and the United Nations Security Council to step up efforts to intervene and stop the violence, despite Russia and China's objection to imposing sanctions on Syria.

After the Arab League reached a cease fire agreement between the Syrian regime and the opposition, the League's unequivocal statement now makes it clear there are no chances of reaching an agreement between Bashar Assad's opponents and his supporters.

Fifteen Syrians were killed in various shooting incidents on Saturday, most of them in an attack by deserters from the Syrian army on a bus filled with officers in the northwest of the country.

On Friday, 23 people were killed in Syria, most of them during demonstrations in Homs, which has been under prolonged military attack at the hands of Assad's supporters.

Saudi Arabia and a number of Gulf states like Qatar, Oman and Bahrain are apparently behind the League's move.

These states see the fighting in Syria as part of a covert war with Iran over the Middle East's future.

"We are calling all Syrian opposition parties to a meeting at the Arab League headquarters to agree a unified vision for the transitional period," said Hamad, who is also Qatar's foreign minister.

"This gives a lot of strength to the position of the Syrian National Council. This is now an Arab position," said Basma Qadmani, a member of the executive committee of the Syrian National Council, the most prominent opposition group.

"This step introduces a possibility of foreign intervention and opens the door for engaging the international community in the case," said Nabil Abdel Fattah, a political analyst at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

Hamad raised the possibility that the Arab League may ask the United Nations to help protect Syrians.

"If the violence and killing doesn't stop, the secretary general will call on international organizations dealing with human rights, including the United Nations," he said.