Arab League approves sanctions against Syria

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Algeria did not vote for the sanctions against Syria. This version has been updated.

November 27, 2011

The Arab League on Sunday overwhelmingly approved a series of economic sanctions against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including freezing the assets of senior figures, banning high-level Syrian officials from visiting Arab nations and ending dealings with the country’s central bank.

The decision is the first of its kind by a body that is often perceived as divided and indecisive. Iraq and Lebanon did not vote on the sanctions.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Saturday that Iraq had “reservations” about sanctions, and analysts doubt that Iraq, which has a strong trade relationship with Syria, would implement them. And Lebanon, whose government is dominated by groups that support Assad, including the militant political group Hezbollah, also is unlikely to enforce the sanctions.

But the move, announced at a news conference in Cairo by Qatari Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad Bin Jasim al-Thani, could nonetheless have a significant impact on the Syrian government and businesses, and represents a hardening stance of Arab countries against Assad.

The tiny Persian Gulf state of Qatar was active in the international effort to remove Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi from power. It now holds the rotating presidency of the Arab League and has been playing a leading role in the unprecedented package of sanctions.

Halting dealings between the central bank and Arab countries will make international trade more difficult for Syria, because it means the bank won’t be able to underwrite such deals, said Chris Phillips of the Economist Intelligence Unit, as will a likely ban on commercial flights between Syria and Arab countries, which the group is considering. This could impact the business community that has benefited from Assad’s liberalization measures and has thus far remained largely supportive of the government.

Phillips said, however, that the chance of the business leaders joining a growing but fractured coalition of defected soldiers and anti-government gunmen working to overthrow the leadership was very slim.

“The sanctions will put pressure not just on the institutions targeted but on the whole economy, and will certainly destroy what remains of investment confidence,” said a banker in neighboring Lebanon, where public rev­enues have been heavily impacted by the turmoil in Syria.

“It is going to have tangible effects as well as a very strong political message,” he added, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Within Syria, anti-government activists said they welcomed the action taken by the Arab League, but some sought more international involvement, calling on the United Nations Security Council to impose a no-fly zone on the country and support the group of army defectors and armed dissidents known as the Free Syrian Army.

An activist in the city of Homs, who goes by the name Hadi al-Abdullah, said the violence was growing worse daily, with sectarian fighting and clashes between security forces and armed anti-government groups claiming dozens of lives daily.

“We call for militarized buffer zones on the borders and a no-fly zone,” he said. “Every hour matters. We are seeing our loved ones die.”

Violence is reaching new levels, according to activists. Rami Abdulrahman, of the London-based Syrian Human Rights Observa­tory, said more than 100 people have been killed in protests and clashes since Thursday.

And, along with fellow activists in the capital, Damascus and the eastern city of Deir al-Zour, Abdullah expressed concern that food and fuel shortages, already harsh, particularly for the poorest people, would worsen with tightened economic sanctions.

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