Syria faces army defectors
Elizabeth A Kennedy
Beirut - Syria's president faces a growing challenge to his iron rule from home and abroad, with renegade troops launching their most daring attack yet on the military and world leaders looking at possibilities for a regime without Bashar Assad.
Also on Wednesday, France recalled its ambassador to Damascus in the wake of recent attacks against diplomatic missions and increasing violence stemming from the 8-month-old uprising. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe warned that "the vise is tightening" around Assad, and a government spokeswoman said Paris is working with the Syrian opposition to find an alternative to the regime.
The move comes as the 22-member Arab League formally suspended Damascus over the crackdown, which the UN estimates has killed more than 3 500 people, and threatened economic sanctions if the regime continues to violate an Arab-brokered peace plan.
The foreign ministers, meeting Wednesday in Rabat, Morocco, also gave the Syrian government three days to respond to an Arab peace plan that involves sending an Arab League delegation to monitor compliance.
"Economic sanctions are certainly possible if the Syrian government does not respond," said Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim.
Gamal Abdel Gawad, an Arab affairs expert in Cairo, said the League's vote suggests Arab leaders are scrambling to influence the type of regime Syria sees in the future.
"Regime change is unavoidable," he told The Associated Press.
The growing calls for Assad's ouster are a severe blow to a family dynasty that has ruled Syria for four decades - and any change to the leadership could transform some of the most enduring alliances in the Middle East and beyond.
Syria's tie to Iran is among the most important relationships in the Middle East, providing the Iranians with a foothold on Israel's border and a critical conduit to Tehran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian Hamas in Gaza.
Syrian allies in Russia and China also worry that the downfall of Assad would seriously hamper their interests in the Middle East.