updated 11/27/2011 2:14:18 PM ET 2011-11-27T19:14:18

In an unprecedented move against a fellow Arab nation, the Arab League on Sunday approved economic sanctions on Syria to pressure Damascus to end its deadly suppression of an 8-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad.

But even as world leaders abandon Assad, the regime has refused to ease a military assault on dissent that already has killed more than 3,500 people. On Sunday, Damascus slammed the sanctions as a betrayal of Arab solidarity and insisted a foreign conspiracy was behind the revolt, all but assuring more bloodshed will follow.

The sanctions are among the clearest signs yet of the isolation Syria is suffering because of the crackdown. Damascus has long boasted of being a powerhouse of Arab nationalism, but Assad has been abandoned by some of his closest allies and now his Arab neighbors. The growing movement against his regime could transform some of the most enduring alliances in the Middle East and beyond.

At a news conference in Cairo, Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim said 19 of the League's 22 member nations approved a series of tough punishments that include cutting off transactions with the Syrian central bank, halting Arab government funding for projects in Syria and freezing government assets. Those sanctions are to take effect immediately.

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Other steps, including halting flights and imposing travel bans on some, as-yet unnamed Syrian officials, will come later after a committee reviews them.

"The Syrian people are being killed but we don't want this. Every Syrian official should not accept killing even one person," bin Jassim said. "Power is worth nothing while you stand as an enemy to your people."

He added that the League aims to "to avoid any suffering for the Syrian people."

Video: Inside Syria: Underground network of cyber activists keeps revolution alive (on this page)

Iraq and Lebanon — important trading partners for Syria — abstained from the vote, which came after Damascus missed an Arab League deadline to agree to allow hundreds of observers into the country as part of a peace deal Syria agreed to early this month to end the crisis.

Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby said the bloc will reconsider the sanctions if Syria carries out the Arab-brokered plan, which includes pulling tanks from the streets and ending violence against civilians.

The regime, however, has shown no signs of easing its crackdown, and activist groups said more than 30 people were killed Sunday. The death toll was impossible to confirm. Syria has banned most foreign journalists and prevented independent reporting inside the country.

The Local Coordinating Committees, a coalition of Syrian activist groups, praised the sanctions but called for a mechanism to ensure compliance.

"The sanctions leave open the opportunity for the regime to commit fraud and strip the sanctions of any substance, thereby prolonging the suffering of the Syrian people at the hands of an oppressive and brutal regime," the group said.

The Arab League move is the latest in a growing wave of international pressure pushing Damascus to end its crackdown. The European Union and the United States already have imposed sanctions, the League has suspended Syria's membership and world leaders increasingly are calling on Assad to go. But as the crisis drags on, the violence appears to be spiraling out of control as attacks by army defectors increase and some protesters take up arms to protect themselves.

Syria has seen the bloodiest crackdown against the Arab Spring's eruption of protests, and has descended into a deadly grind. Though internationally isolated, Assad appears to have a firm grip on power with the loyalty of most of the armed forces, which in the past months have moved from city to city to put down uprisings. In each place, however, protests have resumed.

The escalating bloodshed has raised fears of civil war — a worst-case scenario in a country that is a geographical and political keystone in the heart of the Middle East.

Syria borders five countries with whom it shares religious and ethnic minorities and, in Israel's case, a fragile truce. Its web of allegiances extends to Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah movement and Iran's Shiite theocracy. Chaos in Syria could send unsettling ripples across the region.

For now, Assad still has a strong bulwark to prevent his meeting the same fate as the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia or Libya anytime soon. His key advantages are the support of Russia and China, fear among many Syrians about a future without Assad, and the near-certainty that foreign militaries will stay away.

But the unrest is eviscerating the economy, threatening the business community and prosperous merchant classes that are key to propping up the regime. An influential bloc, the business leaders have long traded political freedoms for economic privileges.

Video: Start of a civil war in Syria? (on this page)

The opposition has tried to rally these largely silent, but hugely important, sectors of society. But Assad's opponents have failed so far to galvanize support in Damascus and Aleppo — the two economic centers in Syria.

Sunday's sanctions, however, could chip away at their resolve.

Since the revolt began, the regime has blamed the bloodshed on terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy to divide and undermine Syria. The bloodshed has laid bare Syria's long-simmering sectarian tensions, with disturbing reports of Iraq-style sectarian killings.

Syria is an overwhelmingly Sunni country of 22 million, but Assad and the ruling elite belong to the minority Alawite sect. Assad, and his father before him, stacked key military posts with Alawites to meld the fates of the army and the regime — a tactic aimed at compelling the army to fight to the death to protect the Assad family dynasty.

Until recently, most of the bloodshed was caused by security forces firing on mainly peaceful protests. Lately, there have been growing reports of army defectors and armed civilians fighting Assad's forces — a development that some say plays into the regime's hands by giving government troops a pretext to crack down with overwhelming force.


Youssef reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Adam Schreck contributed from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Arab League votes to punish Syria

  1. Transcript of: Arab League votes to punish Syria

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: Elsewhere in the region, the Arab League has approved sanctions against Syria in an unprecedented move against a fellow Arab nation. Meantime, Egypt remains a tinder box on the eve of its first election since the Arab Spring . NBC 's Ayman Mohyeldin is in Cairo for us tonight. Ayman , good evening.

    AYMAN MOHYELDIN reporting: Good evening, Lester . For months the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has tried to suppress a popular revolt against his rule. The United Nations has estimated 3500 people have been killed. Tonight the strongest attempt to stop that killing is coming from the Arab League here in Cairo . A critical vote in the Arab League , a near unanimous decision by Arab countries to punish one of their own. The Syrian regime, now under sanctions for its deadly crackdown on an eight-month-old protest. Qatar 's prime minister announcing the list of measures. They include, quote, "a ban on Syrian officials traveling to Arab countries , banking restrictions including the freezing of Syrian government accounts and restricting trade with Syria ." Just outside the Arab League headquarters in Cairo where the vote took place, the future of another Arab revolution unfolds. On the eve of Egypt 's first post-revolution parliamentary elections , a warning from the head of its ruling military council .

    Unidentified Man:

    MOHYELDIN: " Egypt is at a crossroads. Either it succeeds politically, economically and socially or the consequences will be extremely grave," he told journalists. Ten months after Egyptians drove out President Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising, tomorrow's vote will be the first true democratic test for the Arab world 's most populous country . Despite security concerns and political upheaval, a record voter turnout is expected. The elections come after a week of deadly clashes between the security forces and protesters, many frustrated by a military counsel that has increasingly tried civilians in military tribunals, suppressed free speech and failed to deliver key political reforms. But if Egypt , once America 's shining example of stability in the Middle East is any indication, the change sweeping their region is bringing with it a great deal of uncertainty. In Libya , where a transitional council is struggling to impose law and order after the death of Moammar Gadhafi , a group of men surrounded a plane from neighboring Tunisia and delayed its takeoff. They were protesting their government's failure to investigate a deadly clash last week in Libya . Lester , back here in Cairo , polls are getting ready to open in seven hours. And international observers, even a US congressional delegation, has arrived in the country to observe this first round. Keep in mind, these elections are going to take place over the course of the next several months. So it's well into 2012 before a fully functioning Parliament is up and running. Back to you, Lester .

    HOLT: And, Ayman , as amazing as that scene is behind you, we recognize Tahrir Square , a small part of a very big country . What's the mood in general on the eve of these elections ?

    MOHYELDIN: There's no doubt a great deal of anxiety all across the country . Security, primary concern for people and voters. They're expecting a record turnout tomorrow. But there's no doubt there's a great deal of tension and an uneasy calm following a very deadly week here. Lester :

    HOLT: Ayman , thank you very much .


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