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In a symbolic move, opponents of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad took the country’s seat at an Arab League summit in Doha today, despite the resignation of the opposition Syrian National Council president on Sunday.
The delegation of opposition leaders included interim Prime Minister Ghassan Hitto; the head of the national council, George Sabra; and Moaz al-Khatib, who, despite stepping down as president of the Syrian National Council after Mr. Hitto’s appointment led today’s delegation in Qatar.
Syria’s membership to the Arab League was suspended in 2011 as a result of the government’s bloody crackdown on the opposition, which began two years ago this month and has claimed the lives of over 70,000 people, according to the United Nations.
The “decision for the opposition to take Syria's seat was made at the recommendation of Arab foreign ministers,” The Associated Press reports.
After being met by applause, Mr. Khatib thanked the presidents, kings, and emirs in the audience for their recognition of the opposition at the two-day summit.
"It is part of the restoration of legitimacy that the people of Syria have long been robbed of," Khatib said.
When Khatib addressed the summit he opened by painting a dire picture of Syria’s reality today: a quarter of the population displaced and tens of thousands dead, reports Al Jazeera. He asked for more support from Arab and Western leaders, calling on the United States to implement NATO Patriot missiles to defend rebel-held areas from President Assad’s airpower, Reuters reports.
The Syrian government spoke out against the opposition’s presence at the summit today, saying that by inviting them, the Arab League was legitimizing “terrorist acts that are committed overtly and blatantly against the Syrians, their institutions and properties," said an editorial in the government newspaper Al-Thawra, the AP reports.
The Assad government also accused the Arab League of trying to cozy up to Israel and the US: "The Arab League has blown up all its charters and pledges to preserve common Arab security, and the shameful decisions it has taken against the Syrian people since the beginning of the crisis and until now have sustained our conviction that it has exchanged its Arab identity with a Zionist-American one,” the editorial said.
Arab world split
Reuters reports that in an opening speech the Qatari emir pushed for the UN to put an end to the “oppression and repression of the people” of Syria.
The war in Syria has divided world powers, paralyzing action at the Security Council. The Arab world is also split, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar the most fervent foes of Assad, and Iraq, Algeria and Lebanon the most resistant to calls for his removal.
It is not only international powers that are divided, however. As The Christian Science Monitor noted yesterday, divisions between the political and militarized branches of Syria’s opposition are being strained, as well.
The disconnect between the military on the ground in Syria and the politicians of the council was further exposed by the [Free Syrian Army]'s rejection of the council's appointment of Ghassan Hitto to the office of provisional prime minister. AFP reports that the FSA's leaders announced that they do not recognize Mr. Hitto's appointment, saying they "cannot recognize a prime minister who was forced on the National Coalition, rather than chosen by consensus," according to FSA media coordinator Louay Muqdad….
Hitto's appointment also appears to have prompted the council's president to resign. Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, a former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, on Sunday announced his resignation as the president of the Syrian National Council, reports Reuters. Mr. Khatib, a moderate Sunni who in recent weeks had called for negotiations with members of the Assad regime to end the Syrian civil war, saw his influence limited by the appointment of Hitto, an Islamist-leaning technocrat backed by Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The council has not accepted Khatib’s resignation, and has asked him to reconsider. Reuters reports that Khatib publicly said it was the lack of international failure to support an armed revolt against Assad that led to his resignation. In light of the reception of Khatib and the opposition delegation at the Arab League summit, The Guardian’s Ian Black said:
If this were Shakespearean drama, or a political soap opera, you might well think that what he [Khatib] is going to do is return to his post [as opposition leader] at the demands of admiring colleagues, who say only he has the ability to steer the Syrian opposition through this crucial and painful period in their history.