After Kerry Expresses Support, Qatar Prods Arab League to Approve Arming Syrian Rebels

By Patrick Goodenough | March 7, 2013 | 4:25 AM EST

Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Qatar’s prime minister, Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor al-Thani, in Doha on Tuesday, March 5, 2013. (AP Photo)

( – Fresh from talks with visiting Secretary of State John Kerry – who said the U.S. supports the decision by countries like Qatar to arm Syria’s rebels – the Qatari prime minister led a successful push at an Arab League meeting Wednesday to endorse military backing for the Syrian opposition.

The ministerial meeting in Cairo also invited the Syrian national coalition opposition to take up Syria’s seat on the 22-nation Arab League, 16 months after it suspended the Assad regime’s membership.

In a decision announced after the closed-door talks by Arab League head Nabil Al-Arabi, the group called on the Syrian coalition to form a representative executive council to participate in an Arab League summit in Doha, Qatar on March 26-27.

A key achievement at the meeting was the decision, contained in a final statement, supporting “the right of each state according to its wishes to offer all types of self-defense, including military,” to the opposition rebels.

That marked a shift from an earlier Arab League stance approving diplomatic and humanitarian support.

Leading the push for a tougher response was Qatar’s Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor al-Thani, whose country, along with its giant neighbor Saudi Arabia, has been arming Syrian rebels for the past year.

During the meeting al-Thani reportedly clashed with Lebanese foreign minister Adnan Mansur, whose government is dominated by Hezbollah, a longstanding ally and client of Damascus.

Mansur had urged the Arab League to reverse its November 2011 decision to suspend Syria, arguing that the move – which Beirut opposed at the time – had left a helpless Syria to its fate.

“It was not the decisions of the Arab League that drowned Syria in a sea of blood,” the official Qatar News Agency quoted al-Thani as retorting. “Bashar Assad is the one who killed his people and drowned Syria in a sea of blood.”

After the meeting ended the Syrian foreign ministry slammed the decision, saying in a statement released through the official news agency SANA that the Arab League was being held “captive to the biased political stance of certain Gulf states, such as Qatar and Saudi, and thus it cannot be a party conducive in reaching a real political solution to the crisis.”

On Tuesday, al-Thani held talks in Doha with Kerry, who told reporters afterwards that the Obama administration was supportive of the role taken by other countries in supporting the Syrian opposition.

He pointed to the decision he announced in Rome on February 28, to direct U.S. non-lethal aid for the first time to the opposition’s Free Syrian Army, and characterized it as part of a broader array of responses.

“Now, other countries have chosen to do other things,” he said, alluding to those that are providing lethal military equipment to the rebels. “We support that. I think you have to look at the approach to Syria as a whole, not as individual pieces.”

In a similar comment during an interview with CNN the same day, Kerry said, “Some countries have chosen to do lethal, and other countries have chosen to do other kinds of aid. You have to look at this holistically, and in the whole it is having a major impact.”

Experts have long warned that arms shipments from countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been benefiting jihadist groups in Syria, and Kerry conceded this week that there was “no guarantee that one weapon or another might not at some point in time fall into the wrong hands.”

But alongside al-Thani after their talks in Doha on Tuesday, he voiced optimism that things had improved on that front.

“We did discuss the question of the ability to try to guarantee that it’s going to the right people and to the moderate Syrian opposition coalition,” he said in reference to weapons shipments from countries like Qatar. “And I think it’s really in the last months that that has developed as a capacity that we have greater confidence in.”

League’s slow shift

Wednesday’s Arab League decisions on Syria were not unanimously supported. Apart from Lebanon’s objections two other members, Iraq and Algeria, suggested that the invitation for the opposition to take up Syria’s seat violated the league’s charter.

Still, the Arab League has come a long way in the past two years, slowly edging away from its historical opposition to outside intervention in the domestic affairs of an Arab state.

The first major change came in early 2011, when the league suspended Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya over its violent crackdown on the opposition and then in an unprecedented move appealed to the U.N. Security to impose a no-fly zone over Libya.

That decision – which was opposed by Algeria and Syria – was seen as a turning point in efforts to isolate the regime, and paved the way for a Security Council resolution authorizing military intervention and the subsequent NATO operation.

The Arab League response to the Syria crisis, which erupted just days after its groundbreaking shift on Libya, was relatively more cautious.

Al-Arabi visited Damascus in July of that year, but used the occasion to intone the customary line about opposing “foreign interference” in the affairs of Arab states.

Finally in August the Arab League ended its silence – prodded largely by the Sunni Gulf states – voicing “growing concern and strong distress over the deteriorating security conditions in Syria due to escalating violence and military operations.”

Three months later it voted to suspend Syria’s membership (Lebanon, Yemen and Syria voted no; Iraq abstained), its most significant move to date until Wednesday’s decisions to green-light arming the opposition.

More than 70,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict since March 2011, and the United Nation said Wednesday the number of refugees displaced by the fighting had reached one million.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow