Declaring that stability in Syria is a cornerstone for regional stability, Arab foreign ministers called Sunday for an end to the bloodshed there and decided to dispatch Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Araby urgently to Damascus in a bid to resolve the country's political crisis.
In a statement following an emergency meeting of the Arab League council, the ministers also urged the Syrian government to respond to protesters' demands for "political, economic and social reforms."
The ministers met in Cairo late Saturday night to try to forge an Arab strategy on how to deal with the five-month old uprising in Syria, amid rising criticism of Arab states' failure to respond to the harsh crackdown there.
The statement said the ministers asked Araby to travel to Damascus to introduce an Arab initiative to the Syrian leadership. It said the initiative aimed at "resolving the crisis," but did not give further details.
"The ministers also expressed concern and dismay about the dangerous developments which led to the fall of thousands of casualties among Syrians," the statement said.
"It is imperative to stop the bloodshed and resort to reason before it is too late," warned the ministers. "Stability in Syria is a cornerstone for stability in the Arab world and the region at large."
A prominent Syrian opposition leader, however, immediately rejected the Arab League's move as "insufficient." Mamoun al-Homsy said the decision to send Araby "does not respond to the aspirations of the Syrian people and their expectations."
"Without pressuring the Syrian regime, there will be more bloodshed," he told Egypt's Middle East News Agency.
Arab diplomats who participated in the discussions said the ministers dropped an earlier proposal to send a high-level Arab delegation to carry the initiative to President Bashar Assad, following objections from Youssef al-Ahmed, who represented Syria at the meeting.
The diplomats told Al-Masry Al-Youm that Ahmed insisted throughout the discussions, which ended early Sunday morning, that Arabs should stay away from the Syrian crisis and only render their full support to Assad's regime.
The ministers' remarks came hours after Syria's closest ally, Iran, called on Damascus to listen to its people's “legitimate demands" and warned that a power vacuum in Syria could spark a crisis in the region.
The discussions also came ahead of a crucial meeting by the UN Security Council next week to determine whether to take further steps against the Assad regime.
The Arab League was instrumental in passing a UN resolution in March calling for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya, allowing NATO to carry out strikes against the regime of Muammar Qadhafi, which now appear to have toppled his government.
Sunday's statement reflects Arab countries' failure to muster enough support for similar tough measures against Syria, amid a divide among Arab nations over how to address Syria's political crisis and uncertainty about its future.
While Saudi Arabia and several Gulf countries have recalled their Damascus envoys, called for an end to the bloodshed, and backed efforts to refer Syria to the UN Human Rights Council, Iraq has expressed strong opposition to efforts to isolate Assad and warned that it would lead to Syria's disintegration along sectarian lines.
Kuwait's Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammad al-Sabah, who participated in Saturday's meeting, urged Assad's regime to "comply with the demands and the aspirations of the Syrian people." Before heading to Cairo he told reporters in Kuwait that Syria should cooperate with an international committee probing "the grave violations in Syria, in order to avoid serious dangers facing this country."
On Tuesday, European nations and the US circulated a draft UN Security Council resolution seeking an arms embargo and other sanctions aimed at stopping the crackdown on protesters.
Syria is already under sanctions by the US and European countries, but calls for stricter measures have been increasing. The existing sanctions have broadened international pressure on Syria by directly targeting several Syrian top officials and military commanders.
A collective Arab effort to isolate Assad was expected to give tremendous moral support to Syrian opposition movements, who are currently trying to form a broad-based council to represent the uprising against Assad.
On Thursday, representatives of several Syrian opposition groups met in Istanbul, but later said they needed more time to consult with activists inside Syria in order to determine the composition of a potential opposition council.
Syria has been experiencing unrest since mid-March, when anti-government protests broke out in the southern province of Deraa and began to spread to other cities. The protesters have insisted they will defy tanks and bullets until Assad leaves power.
Despite international condemnation, the Syrian crackdown has continued apace. At least two people were killed on Saturday, raising the death toll to over 2000 people and triggering a torrent of international condemnation.