CAIRO (Reuters) - Arab League ministers debated on Wednesday whether to award Syria’s vacant seat in the regional bloc to the opposition Syrian National Coalition, diplomats said.
They said ministers meeting in Cairo were divided on whether to let the opponents of President Bashar al-Assad take over Syria’s seat, previously held by the Damascus government.
“The discussions on giving the Syrian seat to the opposition are taking place now and there are countries for it and others against it,” one diplomat said on the condition of anonymity.
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.
The coalition, comprising anti-Assad political groups and rebels, has formally asked for the seat, but Iraq, Algeria and Lebanon opposed this, coalition spokesman Walid al-Bunni said.
“I can’t confirm whether the decision will be finalized to give us the seat, but I am hopeful,” he said.
Excluding Syria, the League has 21 members.
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.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour pushed in the opposite direction at Wednesday’s meeting, calling for Syria’s suspension to be lifted to help find a political solution to a conflict that has cost an estimated 70,000 lives.
“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, which has led efforts at the League against Damascus, 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 Omar Fahmy in Cairo, Dominic Evans in Beirut and Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman; Writing by David Stamp; Editing by Alistair Lyon