DUBAI (Reuters) - Gulf Arab states broke their silence over a bloody crackdown on popular unrest in Syria, recalling their envoys in a pointed rebuke of President Bashar al-Assad’s behavior and significantly deepening his international isolation.
In less than 24 hours, the island kingdom of Bahrain and oil-rich neighbor Kuwait followed Saudi Arabia’s lead by summoning their ambassadors from Damascus “for consultations.”
Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy normally loath to criticize other Arab autocrats but now wary of giving an opening to reform elements at home, pulled its envoy late on Sunday.
King Abdullah, in an extraordinary statement read on Al Arabiya television, said Syria’s fierce military crackdown on nearly five months of demonstrations for more political freedoms had “nothing to do with religion, or values, or ethics.”
Abdullah, who has approved billions of dollars in handouts to Saudi citizens this year in a move analysts said was aimed at buffering his monarchy from political reform pressure, issued a stern warning that Syria must be open to change.
“Syria should think wisely before it’s too late and issue and enact reforms,” he said. “Either it chooses wisdom on its own or it will be pulled down into the depths of turmoil and loss.”
“The action of Gulf states has served to isolate the Assad regime in the Arab world, thereby signaling a major strategic shift in the region: From tacit support of the Syrian regime’s action to outright condemnation,” said Michael Stephens, analyst at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) based in Doha.
While unlikely to lead to intervention in Syria, the Gulf comments marked the sharpest Arab criticism leveled against any Arab state since a wave of protests began rocking the Middle East in January, toppling veteran rulers in Tunisia and Egypt.
On Monday, Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed al-Sabah told reporters in parliament that he would meet his counterparts across the Gulf to discuss conditions in Syria.
“When the number of innocent people killed exceeds 2,000, it is something totally unacceptable,” he said, while ruling out any military action against the fellow Arab country.
Hours later, Bahrain, which itself suppressed a protest movement in March, joined growing condemnation of Syria when Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled al-Khalifa announced the recall of his country’s ambassador. “Bahrain has summoned its ambassador for consultation and stresses the importance of prudent action,” he posted on his Twitter account.
Apart from Libya’s civil war, Syria’s military crackdown has been the most violent outgrowth of unrest in the Arab world this year. On Monday, tanks extended operations to crush protesters in Syria’s Sunni Muslim tribal heartland.
Assad’s government says it is fighting criminals and armed extremists who have provoked violence by attacking its troops. Syrian rights activists and Western countries say Assad’s forces have attacked peaceful protesters.
But sharp words against Syria by Gulf states are unlikely at this time to be followed by any decisive action. Analysts expect Gulf governments to stop short of supporting intervention in Syria as they did against distant Libya, where the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have sent planes to back NATO air strikes.
In ruling out military action, Kuwait echoed an Arab League statement earlier on Monday saying that the pan-Arab body would use persuasion rather than “drastic measures” to press for an end to Syria’s bloodshed.
Despite a lack of appetite for military moves, Saudi Arabia has played a “game changer” role in bringing Gulf states to heap pressure on another discredited Arab leader to quit, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, RUSI’s Stephens said.
Qatar, which has sought to lead Arab diplomacy as the unrest spreads, was the first to recall its envoy to Syria in July.
Additional reporting by Mahmoud Harby in Kuwait and Erika Solomon, Mahmoud Habboush in Dubai; Editing by Mark Heinrich