The Arab League voted Saturday to suspend Syria in four days and warned it could face sanctions if it does not end its bloody crackdown against anti-government protesters.
The decision is a symbolic blow to a regime that prides itself as a bastion of Arab nationalism, but it was unlikely to immediately end a wave of violence that the UN estimates has killed more than 3,500 people since mid-March.
"Syria is a dear country for all of us and it pains us to make this decision," Qatar's Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim told reporters. "We hope there will be a brave move from Syria to stop the violence and begin a real dialogue toward real reform."
In Damascus, pro-regime demonstrators threw eggs and tomatoes at the Qatari Embassy to protest the vote.
The 22-member Arab League will monitor the situation and revisit the decision in a meeting Wednesday in the Moroccan capital, Rabat, bin Jassim said, a move that appeared to give Syrian President Bashar Assad time to avert the suspension.
But Syria has been unwilling to heed previous calls to end the violence. Saturday's vote came after Damascus failed to carry out a Nov. 2 peace deal brokered by the Arab League that called on Syria to halt the attacks and pull tanks out of cities.
More than 250 Syrian civilians have been killed so far this month, including 12 on Saturday in attacks in the restive city of Homs, the Damascus suburbs and elsewhere, according to activist groups.
Growing impatience with Damascus
President Barack Obama praised the Arab League, highlighting what he called the group's leadership in seeking to end attacks on peaceful protesters. "These significant steps expose the increasing diplomatic isolation of a regime that has systematically violated human rights and repressed peaceful protests," he said in a statement.
Arab League diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters, said that if Syria does not adhere to its demands, the organization will work to unify the disparate Syrian opposition into a coalition similar to that of Libya's National Transitional Council.
A next step would be to recognize the opposition as the sole representative of the Syrian people in a move that would symbolically isolate Assad's regime even further.
The vote was a strong message from Syria's Arab neighbors and showed growing impatience with Damascus.
Neil Sammonds, a Syria researcher for Amnesty International, said the unified Arab showing will put more pressure on the UN Security Council to impose sanctions despite objections by Syrian allies Russia and China. Only Syria, Lebanon and Yemen voted against the Arab League suspension of Syria, with Iraq abstaining.
Syria, which blames the bloodshed on extremists acting out a foreign agenda to destabilize the regime, slammed Saturday's vote as "illegal" under Arab League charter rules.
Its Arab League envoy, Youssef Ahmed, said Damascus was calling on the "armed opposition abroad to lay down arms, surrender, stop the violence and accept a national dialogue."
The bloodshed has spiked dramatically in recent weeks amid signs that more protesters are taking up arms to protect themselves, changing the face of what has been a largely peaceful movement. Many fear the change plays directly into the hands of the regime by giving the military a pretext to crack down with increasing force.
Despite growing international isolation, Assad appears to have a firm grip on power.