Middle East

Syria's Arab neighbours pile pressure on Assad regime

Anti-Assad protest in front of the Syrian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, 7 August
Image caption Syrian sympathisers in Turkey have held rallies in support of the protesters

More Gulf Arab nations have withdrawn their ambassadors from Syria as the government's crackdown against protesters continues unabated.

Kuwait and Bahrain have now followed Saudi Arabia in recalling their ambassadors for consultations.

Nearly five months after Syrian opposition activists started out on their version of the Arab Spring - and with President Bashar al-Assad's regime intensifying its crackdown on the protesters all the while - there is now evidently increasing anxiety in the region about where these events are heading.

Some of the new diplomatic pressure is coming from countries that have faced criticism of their own human rights records.

The first to act was the Sunni Muslim regional heavyweight, Saudi Arabia.

Image caption The Saudi king's public criticism of Bashar al-Assad is seen as highly significant

No less a figure than King Abdullah himself urged Damascus to "stop the killing machine and the bloodshed before it is too late".

Then Kuwait told Syria that "the military option must be halted".

And Bahrain called for "a resort to reason".

A senior UN official - the special rapporteur on extra-judicial executions, Christof Heyns - told the BBC he welcomed the new pressure.

"I do think," he said, "that it is encouraging to see that from the region in different forms - from the Arab League, from the Gulf states, and now from Saudi Arabia as well, and from other neighbours - there is peer pressure and that is really, I think, the most effective mechanism."

In another move today, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb - the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the leading authority in Sunni Islam - called for an end to what he called the "Arab and Islamic tragedy" in Syria.

It all appears to add up to more isolation for President Assad and the regime within the region, with the open criticism from Saudi Arabia on the personal authority of the king seen as the most significant.

Riyadh certainly has an interest in seeking to weaken Syria's ties with Iran, but diplomats believe this is by no means its only calculation in making a move that contrasts with its usually more discreet regional diplomacy.

The British foreign secretary, William Hague, said in a statement issued on Monday evening that he condemned the violence against Syrian citizens in Hama, Deir al-Zour and other cities "that shows no signs of ending".

He added: "We must not watch in silence while hundreds are killed and thousands more detained and tortured. I therefore welcome the strong condemnation by countries across the Arab world and Turkey of the regime's actions and am urgently working with partners on increasing the pressure further on President Assad and those around him."

Besides discussions about further sanctions, there are now signs that these new developments in the region - and the latest violence - could lead to a fresh attempt by Britain and other members of the Security Council to persuade the UN to take tougher action in response to the Syria crisis.

There will be a new focal point of the Syria diplomatic strategies on Tuesday when the former minister of another key regional player - Turkey - is expected in Damascus.

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