- Associated Press - Sunday, November 27, 2011

BEIRUT (AP) — The Arab League on Sunday overwhelmingly approved sanctions against Syria to pressure Damascus to end its deadly eight-month crackdown on dissent, an unprecedented move by the league against an Arab state.

Before the vote, Damascus slammed the move as a betrayal of Arab solidarity. Besides punishing an already ailing economy, the sanctions are a huge blow for a Syrian regime that considers itself a powerhouse of Arab nationalism.

At a news conference in Cairo, Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim said 19 of the league’s 22 member nations approved the sanctions, which include cutting off transactions with the Syrian central bank and halting Arab government funding for projects in Syria. Iraq and Lebanon abstained.

“We aim to avoid any suffering for the Syrian people,” Mr. bin Jassim said.

The sanctions are the latest in a growing wave of international pressure pushing Syria to end its violent suppression of protests against President Bashar Assad, which the United Nations says has killed more than 3,500 people since March.

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said the bloc will reconsider the sanctions if Syria carries out an Arab-brokered peace plan that includes sending observers to the country and pulling tanks from the streets.

“We call on Syria to quickly approve the Arab initiative,” he said.

The Syrian state-owned Al-Thawra newspaper ran a front-page headline Sunday saying the Arab League was calling for “economic and commercial sanctions targeting the Syrian people.” It said the measure was “unprecedented and contradicts the rules of Arab cooperation.”

Since the revolt began, the regime has blamed armed gangs acting out a foreign conspiracy for the bloodshed.

It is not clear whether Arab sanctions will succeed in pressuring the Syrian regime into ending the violence that has killed dozens of Syrians week after week. Many fear the violence is pushing the country toward civil war.

Until recently, most of the bloodshed was caused by security forces firing on mainly peaceful protests. Lately there have been growing reports of army defectors and armed civilians fighting Mr. Assad’s forces — a development that some say plays into the regime’s hands by giving government troops a pretext to crack down with overwhelming force.

On Sunday, activists reported fierce clashes in the flash-point city of Homs in central Syria, pitting soldiers against army defectors.

Violence in Homs and elsewhere across the country killed at least eight people Sunday, according to the Local Coordinating Committees, a coalition of Syrian activist groups.

Many of the attacks against Syrian security forces are believed to be carried out by a group of army defectors known as the Free Syrian Army.

The Arab League’s recommendations for sanctions specified that the Arab bloc will assist Syria with emergency aid through the help of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, working with local civilian groups to deliver goods.

According to a league official, Syrian neighbors Iraq and Lebanon expressed reservations about the sanctions,  saying they would hurt the Syrian people rather than the regime. The official asked that his name not be published because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Syria is a geographical and political keystone in the heart of the Middle East, bordering five countries, with whom it shares religious and ethnic minorities and, in Israel’s case, a fragile truce. Its web of allegiances extends to Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement and Iran’s Shiite theocracy.

Also Sunday, Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh acknowledged that 100 Syrian military and police deserters have taken refuge in the kingdom during the uprising. It was the first official public confirmation that Jordan hosts Syrian defectors.

In September, officials said privately that Jordan had received 60 Syrian army and police deserters, who ranged in rank from corporal to colonel.

Mr. Judeh told the Associated Press that the Syrian soldiers and policemen, whom he claimed were conscripts rather than officers, had arrived in batches over the past eight months.

Many Syrians fleeing Mr. Assad’s crackdown have also sought refuge in neighboring Turkey.

The Gulf nations of Qatar and Bahrain on Sunday warned their citizens to avoid travel to Syria and called on those already there to leave immediately. The Foreign Affairs ministries of both countries cited concerns about the security situation in issuing the travel alerts. They did not mention the planned Arab League vote.

The calls come two days after the United Arab Emirates issued a similar warning to its citizens.

The embassies of the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were targeted by pro-Assad-regime demonstrators in Damascus earlier this month.

Associated Press writers Maamoun Youssef in Cairo and Adam Schreck in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.