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Syria’s opposition gets Assad’s Arab seat

Gathering of Arab heads of state at Qatar summit.

Gathering of Arab heads of state at Qatar summit.

DOHA — To applause from Arab heads of state, a foe of Bashar al-Assad took Syria’s vacant seat at an Arab summit today, deepening the Syrian president’s diplomatic isolation and diverting attention from opposition rifts.

Speaking at an annual gathering of Arab heads of state in the Gulf state of Qatar, Moaz Alkhatib said he had asked US Secretary of State John Kerry for US forces to help defend rebel-controlled northern parts of Syria with Patriot surface-to-air missiles. NATO swiftly rebuffed the idea.

The insurgents have few weapons to counter Assad’s helicopter gunships and warplanes.

“It was a historic meeting. You could feel the grandiose nature of the meeting,” said opposition spokesman Yaser Tabbara.

“It’s a first step towards acquiring full legal legitimacy.”

Alkhatib said the United States should play a bigger role in helping end the two-year-old conflict in Syria, blaming Assad’s government for what he called its refusal to solve the crisis.

“I have asked Mr Kerry to extend the umbrella of the Patriot missiles to cover the Syrian north and he promised to study the subject,” Alkhatib said, referring to NATO Patriot missile batteries sent to Turkey last year to protect Turkish airspace.

“We are still waiting for a decision from NATO to protect people’s lives, not to fight but to protect lives,” he said.

Responding to Alkhatib’s remarks, an official of the Western military alliance at its headquarters in Brussels said: “NATO has no intention to intervene militarily in Syria.

“NATO calls for an end to violence in Syria, which represents a serious threat to stability and security in the region. We fully support the efforts of the international community to find a peaceful solution,” the official said.

Michael Stephens, a researcher based in Qatar for Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, said acceding to Alkhatib’s request would effectively put NATO at war with Damascus. (Reuters)

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