DOHA (Reuters) – A Syrian opposition bloc recognized by the Arab League as the sole representative for Syria opened its first embassy in Qatar on Wednesday in a diplomatic blow to President Bashar al-Assad.
But opposition leader Moaz Alkhatib, who took Syriaâ€™s seat at an Arab summit in Doha on Tuesday, used the ribbon-cutting ceremony to voice his frustration with world powers for failing to do more to help in the two-year-old struggle to topple Assad.
â€œThere is an international willingness for the revolution not to triumph,â€ he told reporters at the embassy, which was festooned with balloons in the red, green, white and black of Syriaâ€™s national flag. Alkhatib, a Sunni Muslim cleric who resigned this week as leader of the Syrian National Coalition, but who is staying on as a caretaker, also alluded to internal differences plaguing the opposition umbrella group formed in Qatar in November.
â€œThe only way to victory is unity,â€ he declared.
Damascus raged against summit host Qatar for helping the opposition into Syriaâ€™s seat at the League, while Russia and Iran also criticized the move to delegitimize Assadâ€™s rule.
â€œThis is a flagrant violation of the pact and internal organizations and rules of shared Arab work and is a dangerous precedent,â€ a statement attributed to the government and run on Syrian state television said.
â€œThe Doha summitâ€™s decision has created a model that will encourage the practice of violence, extremism and terrorism and will be a danger not just to Syria, but Arab states and the whole world.â€
Yet although the 22-member Arab bloc lent its support to giving weapons to Syrian rebels, it is unclear how much impact the oppositionâ€™s diplomatic advances will have inside Syria.
The Cairo-based coalitionâ€™s control over insurgent groups is tenuous at best. Some of the most militarily effective, such as the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, openly reject its authority.
Alkhatib told Reuters in an interview he was surprised by a rebuff from the United States and NATO to his request for Patriot missiles based in Turkey to help protect rebel-held parts of northern Syria from Assadâ€™s helicopters and warplanes.
â€œIâ€™m scared that this will be a message to the Syrian regime telling it â€˜Do what you wantâ€™,â€ he said.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, speaking to students in Moscow via video link from Brussels, again said the Western alliance had no intention of intervening in Syria.
â€œWe believe that we need a political solution in Syria,â€ he said, noting there was no U.N. mandate for NATO action there.
Disunity among Syriaâ€™s opposition in exile and the armed factions on the ground have long hindered the struggle against Assad and have contributed to Western reluctance to intervene.
Alkhatib has cited the Westâ€™s failure to do more to help the opposition, as well as the coalitionâ€™s internal divisions, as reasons for announcing on Sunday that he would quit as leader.
He offered no clarity on his own political future in his interview with Reuters. â€œI have given my resignation and I have not withdrawn it. But I have to continue my duties until the general committee meets,â€ the former mosque imam said.
The Arab summitâ€™s support for Assadâ€™s foes may prove more symbolic than practical, but Syria vented its wrath at Qatar for its pro-opposition actions at the annual gathering.
â€œThe emir of Qatar, the biggest bank for supporting terrorism in the region, began his presidency of the Arab League by hijacking it with tainted oil and money,â€ said state news agency SANA, a mouthpiece for Assadâ€™s government.
Qatarâ€™s Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani â€œcommitted a flagrant violation of the Leagueâ€™s pact by inviting the deformed body, the â€˜Doha Coalitionâ€™, to usurp Syriaâ€™s seat in the Leagueâ€, SANA said, in a scathing reference to the opposition.
Qatar has funded political opposition groups and is believed to be funneling money and weapons to rebels in Syria.
Russia, which gives Damascus military and diplomatic support, scolded the Arab League for taking â€œanother anti-Syria stepâ€ by giving Syriaâ€™s seat to the opposition.
Arab nations are far from united on Syria, with Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon often opposing any action against Assadâ€™s rule.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and some others have thrown their support behind the mostly Sunni Muslim rebels in Syria, partly to weaken Shiâ€™ite Iran, the main regional ally of Assad, whose minority Alawite sect is distantly derived from Shiâ€™ite Islam.
Iran, which has sent advisers, money and weapons to help Assad stay in power, also lambasted the Arab League for allowing a foe of Assad to take Syriaâ€™s seat at the summit, calling this â€œa pattern of dangerous behaviorâ€.
Iran views Assad as a pillar of an â€œaxis of resistanceâ€ against Israel and a bulwark against Sunni militants in Syria, a country which for three decades has been the main conduit for Iranian arms supplies to Lebanonâ€™s Shiâ€™ite Hezbollah movement.
(Additional reporting by William Maclean in Doha, Oliver Holmes and Erika Solomon in Beirut, Marcus George in Dubai and Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Jon Boyle and Michael Roddy)