Syria: Arab League "shameful and malicious"

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem holds a press conference in Damascus, Nov. 14, 2011. Getty

DAMASCUS, Syria - Syria's foreign minister accused Arab states on Monday of conspiring against Damascus after the Arab League voted to suspend Syria's membership over the government's deadly crackdown on an eight month-old uprising.

Walid al-Moallem said Saturday's near-unanimous vote at the Arab League's headquarters in Cairo was "shameful and malicious," betraying his country's deep alarm over the decision.

The vote was a stinging rebuke to a regime that prides itself as a bastion of Arab nationalism and left Syria increasingly isolated over a crackdown that the U.N. estimates has killed more than 3,500 people since mid-March.

"We wanted the role of the Arab League to be a supporting role but if the Arabs wanted to be conspirators, this is their business," he told a press conference in Damascus.

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The vote to suspend Syria put Damascus in direct confrontation with other Arab powers, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who were pushing for the suspension. The vote constituted a major boost for the Syrian opposition.

The unified Arab position also puts more pressure on the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions, despite objections by Syrian allies Russia and China. Only Syria, Lebanon and Yemen voted against the Arab League suspension of Syria, with Iraq abstaining.

An Arab League decision had paved the way for the U.N.-mandated no-fly zone and NATO air strikes that eventually brought down Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, but the group has stressed international intervention was not on the agenda in Syria.

Still, al-Moallem played on fears that the diplomatic campaign could escalate to Libya-style military action, saying Syria's army is far stronger than Libya's.

"They know that our valiant army has capabilities that they might not be able to tolerate if they are used," he said.

CBS News' George Baghdadi says al-Moallem insisted the country's isolation would be over come, as "we have alternative cards to play."

"The solution is Syrian, and you will see that in the coming days," said the foreign minister, without giving any further explanation on what Damascus would do to head off the ongoing strain.

Syrian President Bashar Assad asserts that extremists pushing a foreign agenda to destabilize Syria are behind the country's unrest, rather than true reform-seekers aiming to open the country's autocratic political system.

Syria had earlier called for an emergency Arab summit to discuss the country's spiraling political unrest. But critics say that is another possible bid by Assad to buy time as he faces snowballing punitive action.

In Brussels, European Union foreign ministers were discussing imposing additional sanctions on Syria in response to the continuing killings of protesters.

The EU already has put sanctions on 56 Syrians and 19 organizations in its effort to get Assad to halt his bloody crackdown, and has banned the import into the EU of Syrian crude oil.

"We have adopted a wide range of sanctions already, but I think there's a very good case to add to those," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Monday on his way into the meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels.

Russia, meanwhile, indicated that Assad still has the support of Moscow. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted by the ITAR-Tass news agency saying Moscow opposes the Arab League's decision to suspend Syria.

Earlier, Syria invited Arab League officials to visit before the membership suspension is scheduled to take effect on Wednesday, and said they could bring any civilian or military observers they deem appropriate to oversee implementation of an Arab League plan for ending the bloodshed.

The Syrian government is usually loath to accept anything resembling foreign intervention, and the invitation signaled the government's concern over the Arab action.

An armed resistance in Syria would create a vastly more complicated crisis in the region, analysts concede. Regional powers, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, would likely be drawn in, says Baghdadi, making Syria an arena for regional rivalries between the West's Arab allies and Iran, and threatening sectarian stability in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon.

That specter has both regional and international powers treading carefully. Diplomats are also aware that if they mount any international action against Syria, Damascus could use it to bolster its argument that this year's Arab uprisings are being fueled by foreign conspirators, notes Baghdadi.

The crisis has already raised regional tensions, with Turkey sending a plane to evacuate nonessential personnel after Saturday attacks on several embassies including Ankara's by Syrian government supporters angry over the Arab League decision.

Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Monday that his country would take a "decisive attitude" in the face of attacks on its missions in Syria, and will continue his country's policy of supporting the Syrian opposition.

Turkey also formally protested the attacks and issued a warning against traveling to Syria.

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