BEIRUT — Jordan's king said Monday that Syrian President Bashar Assad should step down for the good of his country, the first Arab leader to publicly make such a call as Syria's neighbors close ranks against an increasingly isolated regime.
Syria's crackdown on an 8-month-old uprising has brought international condemnation, but Damascus generally has been spared broad reproach in the Arab world. That changed Saturday, with a near-unanimous vote by the 22-member Arab League to suspend Syria.
Assad has tried to blunt the most serious threat to his family's 40-year dynasty by promising reform while also using the military to crack down on protests that refuse to abate despite 3,500 dead – including at least 12 reported killed on Monday.
He still has a firm grip on power, in part because the opposition remains fragmented and he retains the support of the business classes and minority groups who feel vulnerable in an overwhelmingly Sunni nation. The 46-year-old leader can ride out sanctions imposed by the U.S. and Europe – at least in the near term – as long as he has the support of key allies Russia, China and Iran.
As the uprising wears on, the regime could wobble. Sanctions are chipping away at the ailing economy, and a financial collapse might persuade the middle classes to abandon their allegiance to Assad.
The call by Jordan's King Abdullah II for Assad to leave was the latest blow.
"If Bashar (Assad) has the interest of his country, he would step down, but he would also create an ability to reach out and start a new phase of Syrian political life," Abdullah told the BBC in an interview.
"If I was in his position, I would – if it was me – I would step down and make sure whoever comes behind me has the ability to change the status quo that we're seeing," he said.
Damascus had no immediate public comment.
After the interview aired, a top Jordanian government official said the king didn't directly call on Assad to step down, noting the monarch was responding to a reporter's question about what he would do if he were in Assad's place. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to comment publicly on the king's statements.
Still, the king's comments were the strongest yet by an Arab leader.
Jordan's relations with Syria have been bumpy since the early 1970s, when Syria tried to intervene on behalf of Palestinian guerrillas in Jordan. In 1994, relations further deteriorated after Jordan signed a historic peace treaty with Israel, Syria's arch enemy. Damascus accused Jordan of breaking with Arab ranks and betraying the Palestinian cause.
Earlier Monday, Syria struck back at its international critics, branding an Arab League decision to suspend its membership as "shameful and malicious" and accusing other Arabs of conspiring with the West to undermine the regime.
The sharp rebuke suggests Damascus fears the United States and its allies might use the rare Arab consensus to press for tougher sanctions at the United Nations as the unrest appears poised to escalate.
"We wanted the role of the Arab League to be a supporting role but if the Arabs wanted to be conspirators, this is their business," Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told a televised news conference in Damascus.
The unified Arab position also puts more pressure on the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions, despite objections by Russia and China. Of the Arab League's 22 members, only Syria, Lebanon and Yemen voted against the suspension, with Iraq abstaining.
A similar Arab League decision to suspend Libya earlier this year paved the way for the U.N.-mandated no-fly zone and NATO airstrikes that eventually brought down Moammar Gadhafi.
Although the Arab League and NATO have stressed such intervention was not on the agenda in Syria, al-Moallem played on fears that Assad's ouster would spread chaos around the Middle East.
"They know that our valiant army has capabilities that they might not be able to tolerate if they are used," he said.
Hours after the Arab League vote, pro-regime demonstrators in Syria attacked the diplomatic offices of countries critical of the Syrian government, breaking into the Saudi and Qatari embassies and assaulting Turkish and French diplomatic posts across the country.
Al-Moallem apologized Monday for the attacks.
"As foreign minister I apologize for this and I hope from our people that this will not be repeated. .. I apologize for what happened," he said.
Assad says extremists pushing a foreign agenda to destabilize Syria are behind the unrest, not true reform-seekers aiming to open the country's autocratic political system.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States would continue to consult with the Arab League, the European Union and its other partners "in trying to increase the pressure on Assad."
European Union foreign ministers decided Monday to impose additional sanctions on 18 Syrians "responsible or associated with the repression and supporting or benefiting from the regime." The names will be released in coming days.
Sanctions generally include visa and travel bans on people and the freezing of assets.
The EU had already placed sanctions on 56 Syrians and 19 organizations in its effort to get Assad to halt the crackdown and has banned the import into the EU of Syrian crude oil.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, meanwhile, indicated that Assad still has the support of Moscow.
"When these people hear tough statements from Washington and Brussels saying no dialogue should be held with (Assad) and he should resign, of course, this does not move to a constructive talks," Lavrov was quoted as saying by the ITAR-Tass news agency.
Regime change in Syria could have a profound effect on regional politics.
Damascus has a web of allegiances that extends to Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah movement and Iran's Shiite theocracy. And although Syria sees Israel as the enemy, the countries have held up a fragile truce for years.
Syria's current regime is dominated by the Assad family's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that represents a tiny fraction of the population. If a government led by the Sunni majority were to take over, it could shake up entrenched regional alliances.
Iraq's foreign minister said Monday that Baghdad had to take into account "international and regional calculations" when it abstained from the Arab League vote.
Iraq was the only country to abstain.
Iraqi officials fear that any possible change in Syria could bring on a Sunni-led regime backed by Saudi Arabia, which already has tense relations with Iraq. Such a move would create more problems for the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.
Syria has asked the Arab League to convene an emergency summit to discuss the country's spiraling political unrest, but critics say that is just another bid by Assad to buy time as he faces snowballing punitive action.
An Arab League official in Cairo said the call for a summit would be discussed by Arab foreign ministers at a meeting in Rabat, Morocco, on Wednesday.
In Washington, Toner said such a summit "looks like another attempt to buy yet more time."
"We've seen this consistent pattern in Syria's reactions to efforts, whether they were Turkey's efforts to resolve and end the violence and then the Arab League's initial offer, that they continue to seek delay tactics," he said.
As diplomats discuss their next moves, the situation on the ground is as bloody as ever, with up to 12 people killed Monday.
The Local Coordination Committees, an activist coalition, said 10 people were killed in the central province of Homs, one in the southern village of Inkhil and one in the northwestern province of Idlib.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported clashes south of Damascus between troops and gunmen believed to be army defectors.
Associated Press writers Sylvia Hui in London, Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad, Don Melvin in Brussels, Maamoun Youssef in Cairo and Matt Lee in Washington contributed to this report.