DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — To the outrage of Syria’s embattled government, the opposition coalition leader formally took its vacant seat at an Arab League summit meeting on Tuesday and immediately requested broader recognition, including from the United Nations, as part of an effort to further ostracize President Bashar Assad.
The decision to grant the Arab League seat to the Syrian opposition coalition, recommended by the Arab League’s foreign ministers at a meeting earlier this month, was considered a symbolic but important milestone in the two-year-old Syrian conflict. The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership in November 2011 in reaction to Assad’s repression of political protests, which have evolved into a civil war that has left 70,000 people dead and millions displaced.
“Syrian people alone should determine who rules the country,” the leader of the opposition delegation, Moaz al-Khatib, said in a speech at the Arab League summit meeting in Doha, Qatar, after the host, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, formally invited him to take the seat as other ministers applauded. Khatib called the Arab League’s decision “part of the restoration of legitimacy that the people of Syria have long been robbed of.”
Before Khatib took his seat, Assad’s government reacted harshly in anticipation.
“Shame on you, Arab brothers,” said the pro-Assad newspaper Tishreen in Damascus, according to a translation by Agence France-Presse. The newspaper denounced what it called “this theft that the sheikdom of Qatar and other collaborator, treacherous, backward Arab regimes have committed.”
Khatib was accompanied to the summit meeting by other prominent opposition figures, including Ghassan Hitto, a naturalized US citizen who was elected as the coalition’s interim prime minister last week. Images broadcast from the meeting showed the opposition’s green and black flag with four red stars placed to Khatib’s right, replacing the Syrian government’s red, white, and black flag with two green stars.
The moment of triumph for Khatib and Hitto overshadowed, for the moment, the fractiousness that has troubled the opposition coalition. Khatib announced his resignation a few days ago out of frustration at what he called insufficient help from foreign powers, though that decision did not appear final. The selection of Hitto was made in a sharply divided vote.
Using the Arab League as a new perch of legitimacy, Khatib said the opposition wanted “the seat of Syria at the United Nations.”
Khatib also told the ministers that he asked NATO to extend its Patriot missile-defense protections deployed in southern Turkey to include a section of rebel-held territory in northern Syria, where opposition forces remain vulnerable to Syrian Air Force attacks. But there was no indication that NATO would comply, which would amount to a partial no-fly zone imposed on Syrian airspace.
Turkey, a NATO member that supports Syria’s insurgency, had requested the Patriot defenses to deter the threat of Syrian airstrikes on its territory.
At the UN, Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general, appointed Ake Sellstrom, a Swedish scientist, to investigate allegations that chemical weapons were used last week.
Sellstrom has previous experience in the region, having been the chief inspector of the UN team that worked to find and dismantle Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons programs in the 1990s.
He returned to Iraq in 2002 to work with UNMOVIC, the UN team that found no solid evidence that Saddam Hussein had resurrected the program to build banned arms before the March 2003 invasion.
A dispute within the UN Security Council on the chemical weapons issue remains unresolved — Russia wants investigators to examine only allegations by each side that the other used chemical weapons in Aleppo on March 19. Britain, France, and the United States want other allegations of chemical weapons use in Damascus and Homs to be included.
No timetable or formal mandate for the investigation team has been announced. The UN Security Council also reviewed the deployment of an observer force in the Golan Heights, after the brief abduction of 21 Philippine soldiers by Syrian rebels.