- Associated Press - Sunday, March 24, 2013

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — In a symbolic blow to embattled Syrian President Bashar 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 Mr. Assad’s regime, which already has been abandoned by many Arab states that are siding with rebel forces in the 2-year-old civil war. But it reflects pressure being exerted by key rebel backers — Qatar and Saudi Arabia — for a show of Arab solidarity against Mr. 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 Mr. Assad and turn the tide against his security forces.

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 Mr. Assad’s superior military power.

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.

The Doha summit now could 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. Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, has invited Mr. 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.

Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah, the Saudi deputy foreign minister, 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 Mr. Assad.

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

Syria’s neighbor 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 the media.

Other nations are wary about completely cutting ties with Mr. Assad. Iraq and Algeria voted in favor 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 F. Kerry said he was sorry to learn that Mr. al-Khatib had resigned, but that the move won’t affect the U.S. effort to try to force Mr. Assad to step down.

Mr. Kerry, who made an unannounced visit to Iraq on Sunday, said the U.S. will continue to work with opposition leadership on the delivery of aid. He told reporters that such a transition in such an opposition group inevitable and that Mr. al-Khatib’s departure doesn’t change U.S. policy. Mr. Kerry said the fight is about “an opposition that is bigger than one person and that opposition will continue.”

The secretary is scheduled to travel to Paris on Wednesday to meet with 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 unproved — use of chemical weapons in Syria, according to French officials.

• Associated Press writers Brian Murphy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Matthew Lee in Baghdad contributed to this article.

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