DAMASCUS, Syria — Syria’s opposition took over the country’s seat for the first time at an Arab summit Tuesday in a diplomatic triumph marred by severe divisions in the ranks of the Western-backed opposition alliance.
The opposition’s ascension to representing the country at the summit in Qatar, a key backer of the those fighting to topple President Bashar Assad, demonstrated the extent of the regime’s isolation two years into a ferocious civil war that the U.N. says has killed an estimated 70,000 people.
In Damascus, the government on Tuesday blasted the Arab League’s decision, portraying it as a selling-out of Arab identity to please Israel and the United States.
“The shameful decisions it (Arab League) 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,” said an editorial in the Al-Thawra newspaper, a government mouthpiece.
The Qatari ruler, who chaired the summit, said the Syrian opposition deserves “this representation because of the popular legitimacy they have won at home and the broad support they won abroad and the historic role they have assumed in leading the revolution and preparing for building the new Syria.”
In a further show of solidarity with anti-Assad forces, the Arab League endorsed the “right of each state” to provide the Syrian people and the Free Syrian Army with “all necessary means to … defend themselves, including military means.”
It was unclear whether the statement would open new weapons channels to fighters. But it would mark a symbolic slap of the U.S. and European allies that have resisted full-scale military aid to the rebels.
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby told reporters that the call for “rights” to aid rebels is not an end to diplomatic efforts to solve Syria’s crisis, but seeks to provide more “balance” with Assad’s superior firepower and aid he is getting from Russia and Iran.
“The right to send more weapons to support the opposition is not an end to political efforts, but this might establish balance between both parties,” Elaraby said.
Fighting, meanwhile, raged on in Syria. Rebels barraged Damascus with mortar shells that killed at least three people and wounded dozens in one of the most intensive attacks on the seat of President Bashar Assad’s power.
The state news agency also reported that a car bomb exploded near the predominantly Kurdish neighbourhood of Rukneddine, killing three people.
The opposition delegation led by Mouaz al-Khatib, the former president of the main opposition alliance — the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition — took the seats assigned for Syria at the invitation of Qatar’s emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, while other delegates applauded.
Al-Khatib used the forum to call for a greater U.S. role in aiding the rebels and said he had appealed to Secretary of State John Kerry to consider using NATO Patriot anti-missile batteries in Turkey to help defend northern Syria against strikes by Assad’s forces.
Asked about al-Khatib’s request for Patriots, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the deployment of the anti-missile batteries to Turkey was a NATO decision with a clear mandate to protect Turkey.
“We’ve heard some of this before in private,” Ventrell told reporters in Washington. “He’s now publicly saying this. But again, that’s what the NATO mission is.”
A NATO official said “the secretary general of NATO has been very clear since the beginning that NATO has no intention of getting militarily involved with Syria. That remains the same.”
“Our current deployment of Patriot systems is a defensive action to protect our ally Turkey,” said the NATO official in Belgium on condition of anonymity in keeping with the alliance’s regulations.
The diplomatic triumph, however, could not conceal the disarray within the top ranks of the opposition.
and underlined the splits that continue to plague the opposition, complicating U.S. and Western efforts to try to shape the course of the fight to oust Assad.
Besides al-Khatib, the Syrian delegation included Ghassan Hitto, recently elected prime minister of a planned interim government to administer rebel-held areas in Syria, and two prominent opposition figures, George Sabra and Suheir Atassi.
Al-Khatib announced his resignation on Sunday because of what he described as restrictions on his work and frustration with the level of international aid for the opposition. The coalition rejected the resignation and al-Khatib said he would discuss the issue later and represent the opposition at the Qatar summit “in the name of the Syrian people.”
Also, Hitto’s election as the head of the interim government was rejected by the opposition’s military office, which said he was not a consensus figure. Some members have accused Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood of imposing their will on the Coalition.
Atassi briefly suspended her membership in the coalition after Hitto was elected.
Addressing the gathering, al-Khatib thanked the Arab League for granting the seat to the opposition and lamented the inaction of several foreign governments, which he did not name, toward the Syrian crisis despite the suffering of civilians in his country.
“I convey to you the greetings of the orphans, widows, the wounded, the detained and the homeless,” al-Khatib told the gathering in an opulent hall in Doha.
Most of the mortar strikes hit the capital’s east side, falling near a school in the Baramkeh neighbourhood, the Damascus Hospital, the Law Faculty of Damascus University and the state news agency’s own offices.
SANA said one girl and two other civilians were killed.
A government official in Damascus told The Associated Press that four people were killed and 42 wounded. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media, and the discrepancy could not immediately be resolved.
Mortar rounds also fell in a number of areas on the city’s west side, including the Christian neighbourhood of Bab Touma, SANA said.
The agency published photos of a hole in a wall of what appeared to be a school, medics treating blood-stained patients and firemen extinguishing burning cars.
It was not immediately known who fired the mortar shells. Such attacks in the capital have grown more common in recent weeks as rebels have clashed with government troops on the city’s east and south sides. While the shelling rarely causes many casualties, it has shattered the aura of normalcy the regime has tried to cultivate in Damascus.
“They think that that through this tactic they can pressure residents to rise up against authorities,” said Fayez Sayegh, a member of parliament and a member of the ruling Baath Party. “But on the contrary, this indiscriminate shelling makes people realize that this opposition is nothing but gangs of criminal terrorists.”
Meanwhile, anti-regime activists said Syrian troops seized control of a neighbourhood in the central city of Homs that is considered a symbol of opposition to Assad’s regime.
The Syrian military’s recapture of Baba Amr, in Homs, while not strategically important in the civil war, is a symbolic blow to the rebels. The poor, predominantly Sunni neighbourhood emerged early in the uprising as a symbol of the rebel movement, first for its protests and later for the armed groups who held it against the regime onslaught.
The seesaw fight for the Homs neighbourhood reflects the back-and-forth nature of Syria’s civil war. While rebels appear to be gaining ground, their progress is slow and their fighters remain vulnerable to Assad’s military superiority.
In other violence Tuesday, the Observatory said that at least 13 charred bodies, including four children and five women, were found on the outskirts of the village of Abil, southwest of Homs city. It said local activists blamed the killings on pro-government gunmen.
The Syrian government does not respond to requests for comment and did not mention the killing in official media.