- Associated Press - Monday, November 14, 2011

BEIRUT — Jordan’s King Abdullah said Monday that Syrian President Bashar Assad should step down, making him the first Arab ruler to issue such a call over the regime’s deadly crackdown on an 8-month-old uprising.

The surprising statement comes as Arabs close ranks against Damascus. On Saturday, the Arab League voted to suspend Syria because of its attacks on protesters that the U.N. estimates have killed 3,500 people since mid-March.

“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,” King Abdullah told the BBC.

Damascus had no immediate public comment.

Earlier Monday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem accused Arab nations of conspiring against Damascus, calling Saturday’s near-unanimous vote at the Arab League’s headquarters in Cairo “shameful and malicious.”

The vote was a stinging rebuke to a regime that prides itself as a bastion of Arab nationalism and left Syria increasingly isolated.

“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,” Mr. al-Moallem said at a news conference in Damascus.

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

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. Of the Arab League’s 22 members, only Syria, Lebanon and Yemen voted against the suspension of Syria, with Iraq abstaining.

A similar Arab League decision to suspend Libya’s membership earlier this year paved the way for the U.N.-mandated no-fly zone and NATO airstrikes that eventually brought down Moammar Gadhafi, but the group has stressed international intervention was not on the agenda in Syria.

Still, Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 has asked the Arab League to convene an emergency summit to discuss the country’s spiraling political unrest. Critics say that is another possible bid by Mr. Assad to buy time as he faces snowballing punitive action.

An Arab League official in Cairo said the call for a summit would be discussed by Arab foreign ministers during their meeting in Rabat, Morocco, on Wednesday.

There are several obstacles, however, including a requirement that any call for a summit must come from the leader of the nation holding its rotating presidency, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to brief the media.

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