The Arab League announced Saturday that it is suspending Syria's membership after its failure to stop the violence against its people. The move takes effect Wednesday.
In an emergency session at its headquarters in Cairo, 18 of the Arab League's 22 members voted for sanctions. Only two — Lebanon and Yemen — voted against the suspension. Iraq abstained and Syria was barred from voting.
The league also called for sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad's regime but did not specify what those may be. It called on member states to withdraw their ambassadors from Damascus, but that decision will be left up to each nation.
Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim read the league's decisions at a news conference after the meeting of the foreign ministers. He said the league is urging the Syrian army to stop attacks on civilians and will hold a meeting with opposition groups in the next three days to discuss a transitional phase in Syria's future.
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 Saturday was no exception. The Syrian Revolution General Commission, an umbrella opposition group, said five people were killed, including four in Homs, the restive city that has emerged as the epicenter of the uprising.
Syria's representative to the league, Yousef Ahmad, blasted the league's decision as illegal. He said it was "an eulogy for Arab common action and a blatant announcement that its administration is subordinate to U.S.-Western agendas," according to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency.
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."
Human rights activists have been pushing for weeks for the United Nations to take action and Amnesty International said Saturday that the Arab League's decision should pave the way for the Security Council.
"Now that the Arab League has taken decisive action, it is time for the U.N. Security Council to finally step up to the plate and deliver an effective international response to Syria's human rights crisis," said Philip Luther, the monitoring group's Middle East and North Africa director. Human Rights Watch has also urged the Security Council to impose sanctions.
It published a damning 63-page report Friday, based on interviews with victims and witnesses in Homs, that said al-Assad regime's "systematic" crackdown on civilians amounted to crimes against humanity.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said earlier this week that more than 3,500 people have been killed in the brutal suppression of dissent since the Syrian uprising began eight months ago.