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Regime backers rally after Arab League suspends Syria

By the CNN Wire Staff
November 13, 2011 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Syrians show their support for President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on November 13.
Syrians show their support for President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on November 13.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: The Arab League's foreign ministers will discuss protecting Syrian civilians Wednesday
  • The Syrian government calls for an emergency Arab summit, state media reports
  • State media shows throngs of demonstrators packing public square in support of al-Assad
  • Anti-government activists claim citizens are forced to join pro-regime demonstrations

(CNN) -- State media showed throngs of demonstrators rallying in support of Syria's president Sunday, a day after the Arab League's decision to suspend the country's membership.

Anti-government activists claimed that many citizens were forced to join pro-regime demonstrations.

CNN could not independently confirm the reports because Syria has not granted international media access to the country.

The Syrian government called for an emergency Arab summit as state television showed thousands of protesters packing public squares, waving Syrian flags and pictures of President Bashar al-Assad.

Syrian officials also invited Arab League ministers to come to Syria before Wednesday, when the suspension is scheduled to take effect, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported.

Despite reports of the Syrian government calling for a summit, Syria has not made an official request for an emergency meeting, which 15 of the organization's 22 member states would have to approve, a senior Arab League official said.

The Arab League's foreign ministers are scheduled to meet in Rabat, Morocco, on Wednesday to discuss protecting Syrian civilians, according to the official, who asked not to be identified because he is directly involved in negotiations over Syria. The official said it was unlikely that the Arab League would schedule another meeting to discuss Syria before then, since member states are also busy dealing with internal political issues.

The league also plans to meet in the coming days with representatives of the Syrian opposition to "unify their agenda," the official said. A date for the meeting has not yet been announced.

Eighteen of the Arab League's members voted to punish Syria in an emergency session at its headquarters Saturday.

Only two member nations -- Lebanon and Yemen -- voted against the measure. Iraq abstained and Syria was barred from voting.

The league's decision Saturday dealt a stinging blow to Syria, and could open the door for broader international sanctions against the al-Assad regime.

Why did Arab League move on Syria?

The league called for sanctions against the Syrian government, but did not but did not specify what those may include. The league also called on member states to withdraw their ambassadors from Damascus, a decision that will be left up to each nation.

On Sunday, the Syrian government said civil and military observers, experts and Arab media could accompany Arab League officials on an inspection trip to the country, SANA reported.

Angry supporters of al-Assad rallied Saturday night at embassies and consulates of countries that voted to suspend Syria's membership, anti-government activists said.

Videos posted on YouTube purportedly showed several of the events. One from Damascus shows a large crowd of people chanting as they gathered outside Saudi Arabia's embassy in Damascus. Another, from Aleppo, shows angry backers of al-Assad yelling as they appear to break through barriers at the Turkish consulate. Some demonstrators are seen taking a Turkish flag, which previously hung over the consulate, and burning it. Neither YouTube video showed any evident violence.

Anti-government activists tell CNN that supporters of the Syrian regime also attacked the Turkish and French consulates in Latakia.

CNN could not independently confirm the accounts.

The punitive measures come after al-Assad's failure to abide by an Arab League proposal earlier this month to halt all violence, release detainees, withdraw armed elements from populated areas and allow unfettered access to the nation by journalists and Arab League monitors.

But none of that has happened, according to daily reports streaming out of Syria.

There have been reports of civilian deaths in the last few days and Sunday was no exception. The Local Coordination Committees, a network of opposition groups, reported 23 people dead, including 12 in Hama and six in Homs, the restive city that has emerged as the epicenter of the uprising.

More than 3,500 people have been killed in the brutal suppression of dissent since the Syrian uprising began eight months ago, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said last week.

With pressure on Syria ratcheted up, some fear an escalation of violence in the next few days.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported heavy clashes Sunday afternoon between the Syrian military and armed groups of suspected defectors.

An Iranian parliament commission discussed the Arab League's decision at a meeting Sunday and said Syria remains a close ally.

"Members of the national security and foreign policy commission reiterated support for Syria as a major axis of resistance," said Kazzem Jalali, the commission's rapporteur, according to Iran's semi official FARS news agency.

But the Arab League was clear in its condemnation, urging the Syrian army to stop attacks on civilians and saying that it would hold a meeting with opposition groups in the next three days to discuss a transitional phase in Syria's future.

The fact that the Arab League, the formal family of Arab states, took such a bold step against a nation that prides itself as the beating heart of Arabism, is a major development, said Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics.

"Syria is now as isolated as ever," Gerges said. "I would call it a game-changer."

The Syrian National Council, a leading opposition group, welcomed the Arab League's decision, calling it "a step in the right direction, and a clear condemnation of the Syrian regime."

"The National Council emphasizes its readiness to participate in discussions regarding the transitional period within the scope of the Arab League, to ensure the stepping down of Bashar Al-Assad and the transition to a democratic government that represents the Syrian people and does not (include) anyone from the regime whose hands have been tainted with blood," it said in a statement.

On Saturday, Syria's representative to the league, Yousef Ahmad, blasted the alliance's decision as illegal.

He said it was "a eulogy for Arab common action and a blatant announcement that its administration is subordinate to U.S.-Western agendas," according to SANA.

Earlier Ahmad had reiterated the government's claim that terrorist gangs were behind the violence and said Syria "made strides" in quelling the violence "despite armed groups' attempts to foil the plan since it was announced."

CNN's Ben Wedeman and journalist Mohamed Fadel Fahmy in Cairo and CNN's Yasmin Amer in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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