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Syrian regime calls for Arab summit amid growing pressure, isolation by neighbors
BEIRUT (AP) ' Syria's embattled regime called for an urgent Arab summit Sunday as it faced growing isolation ' not only by the West but by its neighbors ' amid mounting pressure to end its bloody crackdown against an eight-month uprising.
The crisis threatened to raise regional tensions, with Turkey summoning a Syrian diplomat in protest and sending a plane to evacuate nonessential personnel after a night of attacks on several foreign embassies by government supporters angry over the Arab League decision to suspend their country's membership.
The 22-member bloc's rare, near unanimous vote ' only Lebanon, Yemen and Syria were opposed ' put Damascus in direct confrontation with other Arab powerhouses, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who were pushing for the suspension and constitutes a major boost to the country's opposition.
Tens of thousands of government supporters poured into the streets of Damascus and other cities ' a turnout helped by the closure of businesses and schools.
"You Arab leaders are the tails of Obama," read a banner held at a massive pro-regime rally in Damascus accusing the Arab League of bowing to pressure from the U.S. president.
Violence also continued elsewhere, with activists reporting at least 14 people killed in shootings by security forces in several parts of the country. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said seven of the deaths occurred in Hama when security forces fired on a group of opposition protesters who infiltrated a pro-government rally in the central city.
Syria's call for an Arab summit to discuss the country's spiraling political unrest was seen as another possible bid by President Bashar Assad to buy time as he faces snowballing punitive action over his crackdown that the U.N. estimates has killed more than 3,500 people since mid-March.
In a thinly veiled warning, the government said it was calling for the meeting "because the fallout from the Syrian crisis could harm regional security" ' an apparent effort to play on concerns that Assad's ouster would spread chaos around the Middle East. In an interview with Britain's Sunday Telegraph last month, Assad warned of a regional "earthquake" if the West intervenes in his country's uprising.
But in a significant concession, Syria also invited Arab League officials to visit before its membership suspension was to take effect on Wednesday, and said they could bring any civilian or military observers they deem appropriate to oversee implementation of an Arab League plan for ending the bloodshed.
The Syrian government is usually loathe to accept anything resembling any form of foreign intervention and the open invitation signaled the government's alarm over the Arab action.
The Nov. 2 deal called for Syria to halt attacks on protesters, pull tanks out of cities and hold talks with the opposition. In voting for the suspension, the Arab League said it would meet again Wednesday in the Moroccan capital of Rabat to reconsider the decision, giving Assad some leeway to take action to prevent it.
Arab League officials did not immediately respond to the Syrian invitation. Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby, on a visit to Libya, demanded immediate implementation of the Arab peace initiative.
Arab nations are eager to avoid seeing another leader toppled violently, as happened to Libya's Moammar Gadhafi last month. An Arab League decision had paved the way for the U.N.-mandated no-fly zone and NATO airstrikes that eventually brought down Gadhafi, but officials have stressed international intervention was not on the agenda in Syria.
Unlike Gadhafi, Assad enjoys a number of powerful allies that give him the means to push back against outside pressure. A conflict in Syria would risk touching off a wider Middle East conflict with arch foes Israel and Iran in the mix.
The U.S. and its allies also have shown little appetite for intervening in another Arab nation in turmoil.
The Syrian leader 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. Sunday's demonstrators accused Arab countries of being complicit with the purported conspiracy.
Iraq, which abstained from Saturday's vote, warned the Arab League suspension could make matters worse.
"The suspension of Syria's membership will deprive the Arab League of any communication channel with the Syrian government and this move does not serve the interests of the Syrian people," Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.
Members of the Syrian opposition, meanwhile, rejoiced.
"This gives strong legitimacy to our cause," Bassma Kodmani, a spokeswoman for the Syrian National Council, an opposition umbrella group, told The Associated Press. We consider this decision to be a victory for the Syrian revolution."
Hours after the Arab League vote, however, pro-regime demonstrators in Syria assaulted the diplomatic offices of countries critical of the Syrian government, including break-ins at the Saudi and Qatari embassies and attacks at Turkish and French diplomatic posts across the country.
Syrian security forces confronted the attackers with batons and tear gas but were unable to stop a group from breaking into the Qatari embassy and replacing the Qatari flag with the Syrian banner. Others entered Saudi Arabia's embassy compound, broke windows and ransacked some areas of Saudi Arabia's embassy compound, the kingdom's media reported.
Nobody was reported injured, but the embassy attacks were likely to stoke anger in Arab states against the regime in Damascus. Arab disapproval in itself may not seriously damage Assad's hold on power, but if Syria further antagonizes Gulf states, it risks having them build up the Syrian opposition into a unified body that can win international recognition, as happened during Libya's civil war this year.
Saudi Arabia's Foreign Ministry condemned the attack and said it held the Syrian authorities responsible for protecting its interests.
Saudi King Abdullah, who has condemned Assad's crackdown, had already recalled the Saudi ambassador to Syria in August. Kuwait and Bahrain have also recalled their ambassadors.
Protesters also attacked the Turkish Embassy in Damascus as well as consulates in the cities of Aleppo and Latakia, according to Turkey's state-run Anatolia news agency. Turkey is not a member of the Arab League but has been sharply critical of Syria's crackdown, and Turkey's foreign minister welcomed the Arab League vote.
Turkey sent a plane to Damascus Sunday to evacuate diplomatic families as well as nonessential staff, Anatolia reported. The Foreign Ministry also summoned Syria's charge d'affaires who was given a formal protest note demanding protection for its diplomatic missions.
France also said it had summoned Syria's ambassador to "remind" him of Syria's international obligations, after demonstrators tried to attack an honorary French consulate in Latakia and another French office in Aleppo.
On Sunday, hundreds of baton-carrying Syrian riot police in helmets ringed the U.S., Qatari, Saudi and Turkish embassies ' all located in the capital's upscale Abu Rummaneh district. Three fire trucks were parked in front of the Turkish Embassy. The Turkish and Qatari embassies were closed for the day but the Saudi Embassy was operating, an operator said.
Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Greg Keller from Paris, France, contributed to this report.