The Arab League has followed through on a vow to impose economic sanctions on Syria the first such action in the history of 22-member League.
The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad immediately condemned the action.
The League, of which 19 members voted in favor of the sanctions, was reacting to Syria's refusal to honor the terms of a peace deal put forward a few weeks ago. Among the terms of the deal, supported across the board among League members (with the exception of Syria), was a requirement that Syria remove army tanks from the streets of Damascus, Homs, and other large cities that have been the site of large-scale protests in recent weeks and months. The government deployed the tanks initially to break up the protests. In many cases, soldiers and tanks fired on unarmed civilians. Human rights groups say that such actions have killed more than 3,500 people. The government has said that its actions have been in response to armed militants being influenced from outside the country.
Syria did not vote in favor of the sanctions. The other two nations not to vote in favor were Iraq and Lebanon. Both of those nations, which do a large amount of trade with Syria, abstained from the vote. Even Iran, long a strong ally of Assad, voted in favor of the sanctions.
General Nabil El-araby, Secretary-General of the Arab League, called for Assad to step down and for the government to agree to the peace plan, or further sanctions would follow the current lot, which include the cessation of transactions between League members and the Syrian central bank and the cutting off of League funding for projects within Syria. The United States and the European Union have imposed similar sanctions against Assad's government. Further sanctions could include travel bans on major Syrian officials.
Despite the monthslong protests, Assad still enjoys support of, most importantly, the military, but also large numbers of the population, as demonstrated by a recent pro-government demonstration. Two members of the United Nations Security Council, China and Russia, have so far threatened to veto any major U.N. action against Syria, although spokespeople for both countries have softened their stance in recent weeks.
The country has a fledgling resistance organization, but it is nothing like the one that is now the government in Libya. Still, a growing number of protesters are armed with weapons, including a group who reportedly attacked a military installation.
Many observers fear that the country will descend into civil war, possibly along sectarian lines. An overwhelming number of Syrians belong to the Sunni sect of Islam. Assad and his government and the military, however, are members of the Alawite sect, a much smaller group.