Syrian officials rejected the sweeping economic sanctions against the Syrian government that the Arab League approved on Sunday (November 27th), which include a travel ban on senior government officials and a freeze on their assets in Arab countries.
The sanctions were adopted in response to Syria's refusal to sign the Arab initiative, which called for sending 500 observers from human rights agencies, the media and the military to Syria to assure protection of citizens who reside in areas where violence occurred.
The initiative represents the first time that the Arab League imposed economic sanctions against a member state.
Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, Qatar's prime minister and foreign minister, chaired the Arab League session held in Cairo. The league's economic committee recommended the sanctions at a meeting on Saturday.
Sheikh Hamad said after the meeting that 19 of the league's 22 members approved the sanctions. Iraq abstained from the vote, saying it would not implement the sanctions, and Lebanon "disassociated" itself from the resolution.
"We want the Syrian government to recognize the Arab position that urgently wants the situation to end, especially [for Syria to] stop the killing, withdraw the troops, and release the detainees," Sheikh Hamad said.
Nabil al-Arabi, secretary-general of the Arab League, told reporters after the meeting, "Our main concern is how to spare the Syrian people from the effects of these sanctions."
The sanctions include a ban on transactions with the Central Bank of Syria and the Syrian government and a suspension of all financial transactions with the Commercial Bank of Syria. All Arab Central Banks are expected to monitor bank transfers and letters of credit, except for bank transfers or remittances sent from expatriate Syrian workers to their families in Syria.
The resolution also bans all trade with the Syrian government, with the exception of trade involving strategic commodities that affect the Syrian people. It also prohibits Arab countries from financing projects on Syrian territory.
During their meeting Saturday, Arab finance ministers recommended to suspend flights to and from Syria. The foreign ministers charged a technical committee with responsibility for determining the appropriate time to adopt this measure.
Walid al-Moualem, Syria's Foreign Minister, said during a Monday press conference that the Arab League "closed all windows" with its adoption of economic sanctions on Syria.
He said that banning transactions with the Central Bank is an unprecedented measure that harms regional trade between Syria and its neighbours and amounts to a "declaration of economic war" on Syria.
Asked about the consequences of the economic blockade, al-Moualem said, "Syria relies on agricultural production for 60% of its needs, so there is absolutely no concern that our people will go hungry or cold because we produce what we eat and wear."
Muhammed Nidal al-Shaar, Syria's Minister of Economy and Trade, criticised the sanctions in a statement to Syria's semi-official newspaper al-Watan on Monday. He said they are a dangerous move that would hurt the Syrian population by harming the country's foreign currency reserves.
Al-Shaar predicted that some Arab countries would not implement the sanctions, "such as Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan because they are neighbouring countries that have close trade relations with Syria".
Bahia Mardini, a Syrian opposition activist in Cairo and a member of the National Initiative to Unify the Syrian Opposition, said the sanctions would be more effective than the regime has predicted.
"The sanctions will undoubtedly destabilize the regime despite its claims of self-sufficiency, which is just nonsense. Relying upon neighbouring channels will not be enough," Mardini said.
She also expressed concern the sanctions would affect the Syrian people, particularly the flight ban and the freeze on transactions with the Central Bank of Syria, which she called "the most painful sanction".
Farhan al-Matar, spokesman for the Coalition of Secular and Democratic Syrians, said the Syrian regime has mastered the "game of dodging and evading economic sanctions," especially as sanctions were imposed on it in previous years.
"The regime will exploit the sanctions in the media by portraying the Syrian people as being severely hurt by them," he said. "The Arab stance against the Syrian regime is a message to stop the duplicity and sends a clear signal that the near unanimous stance opens the door to international acknowledgment of the crisis and acknowledgment of the Syrian opposition while ultimately leading to pressure and the imposition of sanctions against it [the regime]."
However, economist Abdul Rahman Ridha called the sanctions "utterly futile".
"They will give the Syrian regime more time to suppress the rebellion within the army and complete the deployment of loyal security forces in all Syrian provinces," he said.
According to Ridha, smuggling operations along the borders with Lebanon and Iraq will serve as trade channels for food and other commodities. Syria's strong relations with Russia, China and Iran will allow the government to complete the most vital projects it had started.
"The global economy is pursuing a liberal and open economic policy which restricts achievement of the desired results from the sanctions, especially since sanctions are nothing new to Syria and have been in place for years without affecting change on Syria's positions," he said.
Khaled al-Sharif, a Syrian lawyer and opposition activist, welcomed the Arab League's actions, which he described as "historic and courageous."
"The sanctions will have no impact on the Syrian people unless the regime itself imposes a food blockade on the population. The sanctions are clear and avoid any measure that could harm the people or increase the pressure on them."
Al-Sharif said sanctions would open the door to stronger international sanctions on the Syrian regime, which would "internationalise" the Syrian issue and ultimately lead to the departure of President Bashar Assad.