Tens of thousands of pro-regime demonstrators gathered in a Damascus square Sunday to protest the Arab League's vote to suspend Syria over its bloody crackdown on the country's eight-month-old uprising.
The protests came after a night of demonstrator assaults on the diplomatic offices of countries critical of the Syrian regime, including break-ins at the Saudi and Qatari embassies and attacks at Turkish representations across the country.
Saturday's Arab League decision was a sharp rebuke to a regime that prides itself as a bastion of Arab nationalism, but it was unlikely to immediately end a wave of violence that the U.N. estimates has killed more than 3,500 people since mid-March.
The protests and embassy attacks are likely to stoke further anger in Arab states against the regime in Damascus. Arab disapproval in itself may not seriously damage President Bashar Assad's hold on power, but if Syria antagonizes Gulf states much further, it risks having them build up the Syrian opposition into a unified body which can win international recognition as happened during Libya's civil war earlier this year.
Syrian security forces had confronted Saturday's protesters with batons and tear gas but were unable to stop a group from breaking into the Qatari embassy and bringing down the Qatari flag, replacing it with the Syrian flag. Others entered Saudi Arabia's embassy compound, broke windows, and ransacked some areas, the kingdom's media reported.
The kingdom strongly condemned the attack in a statement by the foreign ministry and said it held the Syrian authorities responsible for protecting its interests.
Saudi King Abdullah had recalled the Saudi ambassador to Syria in August and had condemned Assad's crackdown. Kuwait and Bahrain also have recalled their ambassadors.Also on Saturday, protesters tried to break into the Turkish embassy in Damascus and into consulates in the cities of Aleppo and Latakia, Turkey's state-run Anatolia news agency reported. Turkey is not a member of the Arab League but has also been sharply critical of Syria's crackdown, and Turkey's foreign minister welcomed the League vote.
On Sunday, hundreds of baton-wielding 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 engines 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.
Meanwhile, thousands of people carrying red, black and white Syrian flags and posters of Assad gathered in a Damascus square, pledging support for Assad. The Syrian leader blames the violence on extremists working on a foreign agenda seeking to destabilize Syria.
Saturday's Arab vote came after Damascus failed to carry out a Nov. 2 peace deal brokered by the Arab League that called on Syria to halt the attacks and pull tanks out of cities.The vote was a strong message from Syria's Arab neighbors and showed growing impatience with Damascus.
More than 250 Syrian civilians have been killed so far this month, including more than 18 on Saturday in attacks in the restive city of Homs, the Damascus suburbs and elsewhere, according to activist groups.
President Barack Obama praised the Arab League, highlighting what he called the group's leadership in seeking to end attacks on peaceful protesters. "These significant steps expose the increasing diplomatic isolation of a regime that has systematically violated human rights and repressed peaceful protests," he said in a statement.
Arab League diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters, said that if Syria does not adhere to its demands, the organization will work to unify the disparate Syrian opposition into a coalition similar to that of Libya's National Transitional Council. A next step would be to recognize the opposition as the sole representative of the Syrian people in a move that would symbolically isolate Assad's regime even further.
The Arab League will monitor the situation and revisit the decision in a meeting Wednesday in the Moroccan capital, Rabat, Qatar's Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim said, a move that appeared to give Assad time to avert the suspension.
In his statement, bin Jassim called on all factions to meet later this week to unify their message as a step toward dialogue with the Syrian government, but many within the opposition refuse to negotiate with the regime.