BEIRUT — Pressure mounted on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad Monday after the Jordanian king suggested he step down ahead of a crucial Arab meeting in Morocco on Wednesday aimed at exploring specific measures to sanction Syria for its ongoing crackdown against protesters.
Jordan’s King Abdullah offered the most explicit condemnation yet of Assad by an Arab leader in an interview with the BBC. “If Bashar has the interest of his country, he would step down. But he would also create an ability to reach out and start a new phase of Syrian political life,” he said.
The king said he would resign if he were in Assad’s position, adding that he “would make sure whoever comes behind me has the ability to change the status quo that we’re seeing.”
The Arab League is due to meet on Wednesday to implement its decision to suspend Syria’s membership.
Among the measures that will be discussed are possible ways of providing protection for civilians in Syria, the Arab League’s secretary general Nabil Elaraby told reporters in Tripoli.
He said the league may turn to the U.N. Security Council for help, a step that would echo the push toward military intervention against Libya this year. It also suggested that Arab leaders are serious about implementing the decision to suspend Syria’s membership and seek ways to halt the violent crackdown against the country’s protest movement.
In a further setback for Damascus, Turkey said Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu would meet with the Arab foreign ministers attending the gathering in Morocco, a sign that the region is closing ranks against Assad after he failed to implement an Arab League peace plan.
The surprise vote Saturday by 18 of the Arab League’s 22 member states to suspend Syria’s membership and open talks with the Syrian opposition about a post-Assad transition triggered a furious reaction in Damascus.
Tens of thousands of pro-government demonstrators turned out in the cities of Aleppo and Damascus on Sunday to stage angry demonstrations denouncing the Arab move, which opens the door to a broader escalation of international pressure on Assad.
The demonstrations followed overnight attacks by enraged, stone-throwing hordes of Assad supporters against the embassies of Saudi Arabia and Turkey in Damascus and against Turkish consulates in Aleppo and Latakia, in which windows were broken and flags burned.
But the reaction seemed only to heighten Syria’s growing isolation, drawing condemnations from Saudi Arabia and prompting Turkey to evacuate a planeload of diplomats’ families to Ankara.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said it supported the Arab League’s decision and appealed for broader international support for efforts to quell the violence.
“The attitude of the Syrian government . . . demonstrates the need for the international community to respond with a united voice to the serious developments in Syria,” a Foreign Ministry statement said.
Syria later sought an emergency summit of Arab leaders to avert what it called “the negative repercussions” for the region if the suspension, due to be implemented Wednesday, goes forward. It also said Arab monitors were welcome to visit Syria to observe the situation, in an apparent concession to one of the terms of the peace plan. Syrian state television warned that the Arab League’s move was tantamount to “preparations for a war on Syria.”
But the appeal, coupled with the attacks on diplomatic missions, suggested the regime had been seriously shaken by the realization that its neighbors were turning against it, said Wissam Tarif, an activist with the human rights advocacy group Avaaz.
“It is fast, it is unexpected, and Damascus has been taken by surprise,” he said. “It’s a huge pressure on Assad, and they are panicking.”
There was no indication, however, that the Syrian government was preparing to comply with the peace plan. The Local Coordination Committees reported that 23 people were killed by Syrian security forces Sunday, most of them in anti-government demonstrations. Among them were 10 people shot dead in Hama when government supporters sought to stage a pro-Assad rally in the city center. Instead, anti-government demonstrators attempted to stage their own protest, prompting the security forces to open fire, said Saleh al-Hamawi, a Hama-based activist.
Also Sunday, the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported the funerals of 12 members of the security forces who had been killed by what it called “armed terrorist groups.”
The Syrian government has labeled its opponents terrorists since the uprising began, but the growing number of military funerals being reported daily by state media offers one indication that the protest movement is starting to acquire arms.