Jordan's King Abdullah, right, welcomes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad upon his arrival for a visit to Amman in 2009.

Story highlights

Jordan's king appears to call for Syria's president to resign

Abdullah's call is a first for an Arab leader, Middle East scholar says

Britain's foreign secretary says "there is a very good case" for increasing sanctions on Syria

More than 3,500 people have died since uprising began, the United Nations says

CNN  — 

A day after a neighboring Arab ruler indirectly called for Syria’s dictator to step down, his opponents inside the country did battle early Tuesday against government troops, an opposition group said.

Jordan’s King Abdullah said Monday that he would step down if he were Bashar al-Assad, a statement observers interpreted as a call for the Syrian president to do just that.

“If Bashar has the interests 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,” Abdullah told the BBC.

“If it was me, I would step down and make sure whoever comes behind me has the ability to change the status quo that we’re seeing,” he added. But, he said, “I don’t think the system allows for that. … I think it’s simply Bashar goes, somebody else comes in. But if it’s the same regime and the same members, then we’re going to be back to the same thing on the street.”

Meanwhile, in Syria government forces and anti-Assad militants fought in the darkness of Tuesday’s early hours in two towns south of the capital, Damascus, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in a statement. “Witnesses said heavy guns are used after 4 large explosions were heard at a military center that lies between Sanamein and Inkhel,” the statement read.

The battle has taken a toll on life and limb, said SOHR, which reported one death so far, as well as eyewitness reports of “heavy gunfire” in other Syrian towns.

In Amman, Jordan, around 300 people assembled spontaneously after midnight Tuesday in front of the Syrian embassy in support of King Abdallah’s statement about the dictator in the neighboring country, one of the protesters said. Many who gathered were Syrians living in Jordan, said protester Obaydah Amer.

A few hours after the Jordanian King’s statement, Petra, the state-run news agency, said Abdullah’s remarks “were not a direct call for the Syrian president to step down but he was, rather, responding to a question on what can a person in his position do.”

But there is little difference between the two statements, said Marius Deeb of the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. “He’s actually saying for him to step down, but in an indirect way, a polite, diplomatic way,” the Middle East expert said.

“Basically, everybody has figured out that President Bashar al-Assad cannot stay in power any more. That’s it. He can kill more, yes, but eventually, at the end of the day, he has to leave.”

If al-Assad were to accept the call by the Arab League for him to remove his army and tanks from the streets and let people demonstrate peacefully, “He will have millions in the streets. There’s no hope. He’s in a bind; he cannot get out of it.”

The Syrian president is under increasing pressure to step aside even as his government continues an eight-month crackdown that the United Nations says has claimed more than 3,500 lives since unrest broke out in mid-March, including scores reportedly killed on Monday.

Abdullah’s pronouncement marks the first time an Arab leader has made such a statement, said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator who is now at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

“It obviously, somehow, punches his ticket as a reformer, which may help him at home but also leaves him somewhat at odds – not with the Arabs, but clearly with the Syrians,” Miller said in a telephone interview. “It’s only a matter of time” before other Arab leaders follow the Jordanian king’s lead, he predicted.

Abdullah’s move “is big” because the monarchs in the Arab world have been reluctant to call for other rulers to step down, said Joshua Muravchik, a fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and at the George W. Bush Institute. “Gadhafi was the big exception, but Gadhafi was a nut who had badly alienated everyone,” he said. “Assad is not a nut. He’s a cruel dictator and cruel dictators have never offended other rulers in the Arab world.”

Muravchik contrasted the world’s reaction to the violence meted out by troops loyal to al-Assad with the lack of reaction to the 1982 massacre in Hama, which may have killed some 20,000 people, during the regime of Hafez al-Assad, the current leader’s father.

“Everyone was cool with what his father did,” Muravchik said. “It’s a new age, even in the Arab world, which has been the last to enter this new age. Rulers just can’t do that with impunity, and Assad, by killing so many of his own peaceful protesting citizens, seems to have crossed the line, which no one is willing to accept.”

Eighteen of the Arab League’s 22 members voted Saturday to suspend Syria over its failure to rein in the violence. The suspension is set to take effect Wednesday.

The league’s decision could open the door for broader international sanctions against al-Assad’s regime.

“I think it is very good that the Arab League (is) taking a leading role on this crisis,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Monday. “It is very important in the European Union that we consider additional measures to add to the pressure on the Assad regime, to stop the unacceptable violence against the people of Syria. And we have adopted a wide range of sanctions on Syria already, but I think there is a very good case to add to those.”

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticized the Arab League’s actions and accused the West of instigating Syrian opposition, according to the Moscow-based Interfax news agency.

“Radical opposition activists have also been incited to seek a change of the regime and decline any invitation for dialogue,” Lavrov said, according to Interfax.

Why did Arab League move on Syria?

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, quoted by the state-run SANA news agency, said, “Syria is a state of full sovereignty and will defend every span of its land.”

“The Arab League decision on suspending Syria’s membership and the other provisions it has included constitute a very dangerous step on the present and future of the joint Arab action and on the goals and role of the AL,” he said, according to SANA.

“The Syrian people should not be worried because Syria is not Libya,” he said, according to SANA.

“The Arab economic sanctions against Syria are shameful and unprecedented action by the Arab League.”

The agency also reported Monday that the government was calling for an “emergency Arab summit” to address the issue. Citing an official source, SANA said the government would invite the Arab League’s Ministerial Committee to visit the country to observe conditions.

Fifteen of the organization’s member states would have to approve the request to meet in emergency session.

The Arab League’s stated purpose is to strengthen ties among its member nations, coordinate their policies and promote common interests.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said Monday the situation in Syria is of “enormous concern.” The EU will work closely with the Arab League, she said. “I hope the president is finally going to listen to his people,” she added.

Angry supporters of the Syrian president rallied Saturday night at embassies and consulates of countries that voted to suspend Syria’s membership in the Arab League, anti-government activists said.

Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal said Sunday that a crowd “threw stones at some honorary consulates, including ours” in Latakia, Syria. He said attacks also took place on embassies in Damascus, including Turkey’s, and that a crowd tried to enter his country’s consulate in Aleppo.

Unal said Turkey has evacuated families of its staff members in Syria.

On Sunday night, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met with members of the Syrian opposition, Unal said.

According to a statement from the opposition Syrian National Council, Davutoglu said Turkey recognizes the council as a political framework, which represents the will of the Syrian people and the revolutionary youth.

Protesters in Syria are demanding al-Assad’s ouster and democratic elections. Al-Assad has been in power since 2000; his father ruled Syria for three decades.

Security forces killed 51 people on Monday – 28 in Daraa, 13 in Homs, six in Idleb, two in Hama and one each in Qamishli and Damascus, according to the opposition Local Coordinating Committees, which organizes and documents anti-government protests. The casualties reportedly included two children.

CNN cannot independently confirm individual accounts of violence because Syria’s government restricts the activity of journalists.

In October, Russia and China teamed up to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have condemned the Syrian response to the demonstrators and called for an immediate end to the government clampdown on the opposition.

The league’s foreign ministers are scheduled to meet Wednesday in Rabat, Morocco, to discuss protecting Syrian civilians, according to the senior league official, who asked not to be identified because he is directly involved in negotiations over Syria.

The Arab League also plans to meet with representatives of the Syrian opposition to “unify their agenda,” the official said. A date for the meeting has not been announced.

CNN’s Ivan Watson contributed to this report.