By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMMAN (Reuters) – France recalled its ambassador to Damascus and Syriaâ€™s suspension from the Arab League took effect on Wednesday, intensifying diplomatic pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to halt a violent eight-month-old crackdown on protests.
Syrian army defectors attacked an intelligence complex on the edge of Damascus in a high-profile assault that showed how close the popular uprising is to sliding into armed conflict.
Hours after the Arab League suspension took effect, Assad supporters threw stones and debris at the embassy of the United Arab Emirates and smeared its walls with graffiti, witnesses said. The embassy is in one of the most secure districts of the capital, near Assadâ€™s home and offices.
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said France was working with the Arab League on a draft resolution at the United Nations.
Last month Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have condemned Damascus, but since then the normally cautious Arab League has suspended Syria for failing to implement an Arab peace plan.
â€œNew violence is taking place and that has led to the closure of the missions in Aleppo and Latakia and to recall our ambassador to Paris,â€ Juppe said, referring to weekend attacks by pro-Assad demonstrators on French diplomatic premises, as well as Turkish and Saudi missions, in Syria.
Arab foreign ministers met in Rabat for an Arab-Turkish forum, where a Syrian flag was placed by an empty chair.
Turkey, now a fierce critic of its former ally, said Syria had failed to honor an Arab peace plan to halt the unrest.
Speaking through a translator, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu compared Syria with Libya, where rebels captured, humiliated and killed Muammar Gaddafi last month.
â€œThe regime should meet the demands of its people,â€ he said. â€œThe collective massacres in Syria and … the bloodshed cannot continue like this.â€
IRAN DEFENDS SYRIA
In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi criticized the Arab League for â€œacting in a way that will hurt the security of the region.â€ He told the official news agency IRNA that Syria, an ally of Iran since 1980, had repeatedly pledged to meet legitimate popular demands and enact reforms.
â€œUnfortunately, some countries believe that they are outside the crisis … but they are mistaken because if a crisis happens they will be entangled by its consequences.â€
Saudi Arabia, which is eager to loosen the ties between its regional rival Iran and Syria, said the Arab League was acting in Syriaâ€™s interest, not interfering in its affairs.
â€œWhatâ€™s important is not about suspending or not suspending (Syria from the League), itâ€™s stopping the bloodshed, starting the dialogue, and withdrawing troops from Syrian cities,â€ Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told Al Arabiya channel.
Western countries have tightened sanctions on Syria and on Monday Jordanâ€™s King Abdullah became the first Arab head of state to urge Assad to quit after ensuring a smooth handover.
In the early months of the uprising, attempts by security forces to crush mainly peaceful protests accounted for most of the violence. But since August there has been a growing number of reports of army defectors and armed civilians fighting back.
Activists said Free Syrian Army fighters fired machineguns and rockets at a large Air Force Intelligence complex on the northern edge of the capital at about 7:30 p.m. EST.
A gunfight ensued and helicopters circled over the complex, on the Damascus-Aleppo highway. There were no immediate reports of casualties. Syrian state media did not mention the attack.
The U.S. State Department said it had few details and no direct confirmation of the incident, but blamed Assadâ€™s crackdown on protesters.
â€œItâ€™s not surprising that we are now seeing this kind of violence,â€ State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. â€œWe donâ€™t condone it in any way, shape or form. But letâ€™s be very clear that it is the brutal tactics of Assad and his regime in dealing with what began as a non-violent movement is now taking Syria down a very dangerous path.â€
A Western diplomat in Damascus described the assault as â€œhugely symbolic and tactically new,â€ saying that if the reported details were true it would be â€œmuch much more coordinated than anything we have seen before.â€
â€œTo actually attack a base like this is something else, and so close to Damascus as well,â€ said the diplomat, adding that fighting in recent weeks involving army deserters in the town of Rastan and the city of Homs resembled a localized civil war.
â€œItâ€™s not a nationwide civil war, but in very specific locations, it is looking like that,â€ said the diplomat.
The Free Syrian Army was set up by deserters and is led by Colonel Riad al-Asaad, who is based in southern Turkey.
It announced this week that it had formed a â€œtemporary military councilâ€ of nine defecting officers, led by Asaad.
The statement said the Syrian Free Army aimed to â€œbring down the regime and protect citizens from the repression … and prevent chaos as soon as the regime falls,â€ adding that it would form a military court to try â€œmembers of the regime who are proven to have been involved in killing operations.â€
Syrian television showed thousands of Assadâ€™s supporters rallying in Damascus and Latakia to mark the day his father Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1970. It said the crowds were also voicing their rejection of the Arab Leagueâ€™s decision.
â€œGod, Syria, Bashar, thatâ€™s all!â€ demonstrators shouted in central Damascus after turning out in heavy rain to wave flags and posters of the president. Two large posters of Assad and his father hung from a building. â€œNeither rain nor sanctions will stop us expressing our nationalism,â€ they said, according to the television report.
The Arab League has stopped short of calling for Assadâ€™s departure or proposing any Libya-style military intervention, but its ostracism of Syria is a blow to a country whose ruling Baath party puts Arab nationalism at the center of its credo.
Syrian authorities have banned most independent media. They blame the unrest on â€œarmed terrorist gangsâ€ and foreign-backed militants who they say have killed 1,100 soldiers and police.
Hundreds of people have been killed this month, one of the bloodiest periods of the revolt.
Syria says it remains committed to the Arab peace plan, which calls for the withdrawal of troops from urban areas, the release of prisoners and a dialogue with the opposition.
State media said more than 1,000 prisoners, including prominent dissident Kamal Labwani, were freed on Tuesday. But human rights campaigners say tens of thousands have been detained since anti-Assad protests began.