CAIRO (Reuters) - Arab League ministers decided on Wednesday to let member nations arm Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad, and invited an opposition coalition to take the League seat formerly occupied by Damascus.
Previously the League had stressed that the Syrian political opposition and rebels should be supported by humanitarian and diplomatic means during the civil war, which has cost an estimated 70,000 lives.
However, a final statement issued at the end of a ministerial meeting in Cairo said they had “stressed the right of each state according to its wishes to offer all types of self defense, including military, to support the resilience of the Syrian people and the Free (Syrian) Army.”
Qatar has led a push against Damascus at the League but Wednesday’s decision was not unanimous. Lebanon, Iraq and Algeria refused to endorse the final statement’s sections on Syria.
Current and former Western officials say Qatari officials and rich Arabs from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere have already been cutting ad hoc arms deals on the Turkish-Syrian border with a disparate collection of opposition groups.
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby told a news conference that the ministers had invited the opposition Syrian National Coalition - an umbrella body of anti-Assad political and rebel groups - to occupy the Syrian seat at the League.
This was held by Damascus until it was suspended from the organization two years ago.
The statement called on the coalition to choose a representative to attend a League meeting that will be held in the Qatari capital of Doha on March 26-27. Excluding Syria, the League has 21 members.
Walid al-Bunni, spokesman for the opposition coalition, welcomed the decision as “better late than never” and said the organization now wanted U.N. representation.
“We see this as a step towards asking for a seat in the United Nations and such important steps will eventually lead to the removal of Bashar al-Assad and put an end to his cruel regime,” he said.
Damascus was suspended from the Cairo-based League in November 2011, eight months into what began as a peaceful popular uprising against Assad but has turned into a civil war.
Moaz Alkhatib, a 52-year-old former preacher at the ancient Ommayad mosque in Damascus, was chosen in November to head the opposition coalition. He won modest pledges of support for the rebels from Western and Arab ministers in Rome late last month.
Earlier, Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour pushed in the opposite direction at Wednesday’s meeting, calling for the suspension of Damascus to be lifted to help find a political solution to the conflict. “Communication with Syria...is essential for a political solution,” Mansour told the meeting.
He told Reuters later that Syria’s seat should not go to the opposition. “Syria is a state and a government and the idea that a state could be replaced by a group of opponents is very dangerous,” he said.
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government is dominated by a coalition including the militant group Hezbollah and its mainly Shi‘ite and Christian allies who support Assad.
Mikati, who has sought to follow a policy of “dissociation” from the conflict in Lebanon’s dominant neighbor, has said his country would respect any League decisions about Syria.
However, Mansour criticized the Cairo-based organization’s steps against Damascus.
“We have held meetings over two years and taken decision after decision thinking that with them we will be providing Syria with security and stability by removing the regime and replacing it with another - while Syria sank into blood and destruction,” he said.
Qatar blamed Assad for nearly two years of bloodshed in Syria. “The person who brought a sea of blood is Bashar because he did not commit to the Arab decisions and did not cooperate with us,” Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani told the meeting.
One million refugees have fled Syria, piling pressure on its neighbors, including Lebanon, which are struggling to support them, the United Nations refugee agency said on Wednesday.
Additional reporting by Alexander Dziadosz and Omar Fahmy in Cairo, Dominic Evans in Beirut and Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman; Writing by David Stamp; Editing by Alistair Lyon