CAIRO: Arab League ministers decided on Wednesday to let member nations arm Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar 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 defence, 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 organisation 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 organisation 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.