Middle East

Arab League seat for Syria opposition just symbolic?

A photo made available on March 26, 2013, shows Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib head of the Syrian opposition delegation attending the opening of the Arab League summit in the Qatari capital, Doha, on March 26, 2013. AFP PHOTO/HO

BEIRUT: The Arab League's decision to grant Syria's seat to the opposition could prove to be nothing more than a symbolic act as long as there is no real backing for a rebel government on the ground, opponents and analysts say.

Last week, the main opposition National Coalition selected Ghassan Hitto as the country's first rebel prime minister, tasking him with forming a government to administer insurgent-held areas.

But the move was not backed by Washington and rebel supporter Riyadh, which prefer a government born from dialogue between regime and opposition figures.

"Of course the opposition's entry into the Arab League plays an important symbolic and political role, though it is difficult to measure what it means in practice," said Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center.

"It sends a very important message that Arab leaders are supporting the opposition," Hamid added, after demands from countries supporting the revolt for a better organised opposition with proven legitimacy.

But Hamid said that, unless the military balance is tipped to the rebels' favour and the United States fully backs the opposition, the situation will remain broadly unchanged.

Washington has promised direct non-lethal support, but has held back on weapons shipments for fear they may end up in the hands of extremists.

"The problem (for the opposition) is still the same today as it was a year ago," said Hamid.

An opponent working with the National Coalition told AFP: "We hope that recognition by the Arab League will help unseat the regime (of President Bashar al-Assad) at the United Nations.

"The opposition's entry into the Arab League at least means there is no going back for the regime," he added.

But opponents say that without full-scale international backing for an opposition government, which has yet to be formed, the Arab League seat will bring, at most, a boost to morale.

"A government needs to become a legitimate actor on the ground; it needs to effectively deliver services. And for that, it needs funds and backing," said the opponent, amid a spiralling humanitarian crisis in Syria.

With large swathes of Syria out of army control, "we are working on bringing about the fall of the regime through political means, in step with the rebels' advance on the ground."

But the opposition is frequently accused of being disconnected from reality on the ground, with Islamists making gains where the Coalition has failed to deliver.

On Friday, protesters in Aleppo province chanted: "What is the use of a seat in the Arab League? What we want is the end of the bloodshed."

With violence raging in Syria, more than 70,000 people have been killed in just over two years and millions of others have been displaced, the UN says.

Abu Ghazi, an anti-regime activist based in the central province of Hama, told AFP via the Internet: "We need real help, not just symbolic victories and dreams. We need humanitarian aid and military assistance to defend rebel areas from air strikes, at the very least.

"The seat is important because it gives the opposition legitimacy -- but does it mean the end of Assad's regime? On the ground, (rebel) fighters have no time for the Coalition. Unless it proves itself in the liberated areas, it will completely lose legitimacy."

Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut said the opposition's entry into the Arab League "may have symbolic and emotional significance, but it has limited consequences diplomatically and politically."

And with Islamists leading the advances on the ground, it remains unclear how effective a future rebel government can ever be, he added.

Any challenge to the regime's seat at the United Nations would be decided by the UN General Assembly's credentials committee, which would report to the 193-member General Assembly. Diplomats say no move is expected before the new General Assembly year starts in September.





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