Arab League hands Syrian seat to rebels

In a symbolic blow to embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, senior Arab diplomats said Sunday that they will transfer Syria's seat in their main regional group to opposition forces.

President of the Western-backed Syrian opposition coalition, Mouaz al-Khatib, resigns

Syrian National Coalition head Mouaz al-Khatib announced his resignation Sunday, citing frustrations with lagging international support for those trying to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

In a symbolic blow to embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, senior Arab diplomats said Sunday that they will transfer Syria's seat in their main regional group to opposition forces.

The Arab League's decision is unlikely to mean much in practical terms to Assad's regime, which has already been abandoned by many Arab states that are siding with rebel forces in the two-year civil war. But it reflects pressure being exerted by key rebel backers — Qatar and Saudi Arabia — for a show of Arab solidarity against Assad at a two-day Arab League summit beginning Tuesday in Doha.

The gathering comes amid a serious shakeup within the opposition force over complaints that international support is insufficient to bring down Assad and turn the tide against his security forces.

Syrian rebel coalition head resigns over aid frustrations

The president of the Western-backed Syrian opposition coalition, Mouaz al-Khatib, resigned Sunday from the Syrian National Council, blaming world powers for not giving the anti-Assad forces the ability to "defend themselves" against Assad's superior military power.

Khatib, a respected preacher who has led the Coalition since soon after its creation in November, said in a statement posted on his Facebook page that he was making good on a promise to quit if certain undefined "red lines" were crossed.

"I am keeping my promise today and announcing my resignation from the National Coalition so that I can work with freedom that is not available inside the official institutions," he said.

He also blamed world powers for providing inadequate support for the rebel cause and complained that many "international and regional parties" insisted on pushing the opposition toward dialogue with the regime. Most opposition leaders and activists say Assad's regime has killed too many people to be part of the conflict's solution.

"All that has happened to the Syrian people — from destruction of infrastructure to the arrest of tens of thousands to the displacement of hundreds of thousands to other tragedies — is not enough for an international decision to allow the Syrian people to defend themselves," the statement said.

It was a clear snub of U.S. and Western allies that have resisted calls by regional countries, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to increase the flow of heavy weapons to rebel fighters. Western governments fear stepped-up military aid could prolong the bloodshed and potentially give greater firepower to Islamic extremists who have joined the civil war, which has claimed more than 70,000 lives.

Opposition must choose envoy

The Doha summit could now become a high-profile forum for a newcomer opposition figure, Ghassan Hitto, a Syrian-born American who this month became head of the Syrian National Council's interim government. Qatar's prime minister, Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, has invited Hitto to the summit.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr Kamel said it was now up to the Syrian opposition to decide on its envoy once the Arab League officially transfers the seat after the summit gets under way.

The Saudi deputy foreign minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah, called the decision another "turning point" in boosting international recognition of the Syrian National Council, which has presented itself to world leaders as a political alternative to Assad.

Arab states conflicted on Syrian civil war

The move, however, also underscores some rifts and reservations among Arab states.

Syria's neighbour Lebanon — caught in a volatile split between Assad backers and opponents — abstained from the vote on switching the Arab League seat, said a diplomat who took part in the discussions. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief media.

Other nations are wary about completely cutting ties with Assad. Iraq and Algeria voted in favour of transferring Syria's seat, but urged the Arab League to take a "conservative" approach toward the civil war, the diplomat said.

Only hours before the Arab League decision, the traditional Syrian flag — not the rebel version — was displayed in the meeting hall in a sign of the disputes over how far to back the rebels.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to travel to Paris on Wednesday to meet French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius for talks that are expected to focus on arming Syrian rebels. The discussion also is expected to touch on the suspected — but still unproven — use of chemical weapons in Syria, according to French officials.

The United Nations says more than 70,000 people have been killed since the crisis began in March, 2011.

Already, Syrian refugees have toppled the one million mark, and the UN predicts that number could triple by the end of 2013 if Syria's civil war continues. About half of the current refugees are children, according to the agency — most of them are younger than 11.

With files from CBC News