Arab summit to convene in absence of several leaders
The Arab League on Tuesday kicks off a two-day summit in Doha where opponents of President Bashar al-Assad will represent Syria for the first time, despite rifts which have marred their political gains.
Several leaders will be absent for health reasons, including King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a strong backer of the two-year-old Syrian rebellion, and Iraq's President Jalal Talabani.
The Qatari hosts, the most vocal supporters of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, have won the promotion of Syria's opposition National Coalition to fill the country's spot.
The seat has been empty since the Arab League suspended Syria's membership in November 2011 after Damascus rejected an Arab proposal to end the violence.
The suspension came after Assad's forces launched a bloody crackdown on dissent which has since morphed into a civil war in which more than 70,000 people have been killed, according to UN figures.
The decision to hand the seat to the opposition has not been without its detractors, with reservations expressed by Iraq, Algeria and Lebanon.
A high-ranking League official in the Qatari capital said that the National Council "has been invited to the Arab summit and will occupy Syria's seat" at the 22-member Arab League.
Damascus reacted furiously to the announcement.
"The League has handed Syria's stolen seat to bandits and thugs," Syrian official daily Al-Thawra said.
"They have forgotten that it is the people who grant the powers and not the emirs of obscurantism and sand," it said, a clear reference to Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
A state television station said: "Qatar wants to bypass the rules of the Arab League by giving the seat of a founding member of the League to a coalition that obeys only the money and fuel of the Gulf and submits to American dictates."
Confusing the situation, National Coalition leader Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib on Sunday announced his resignation, throwing the fragmented opposition into disarray and denting its credibility.
Despite resigning, Khatib said he would address the summit "in the name of the Syrian people".
The Coalition's envoy to Doha, Nizar al-Haraki, said that Khatib would in fact head the delegation representing Syria, which will include the country's first rebel prime minister, Ghassan Hitto.
"I have decided to make a speech in the name of the Syrian people at the Doha summit," Khatib announced in a statement on his Facebook page, saying he took his decision after prayers and consulting friends.
"This is not linked to the resignation which will be later discussed," he added.
The coalition has not yet accepted Khatib's resignation.
The Arab League on March 6 called on the coalition "to form an executive body to take up Syria's seat" and attend the summit.
An opposition source said that Khatib had accused "certain countries, notably Qatar, of wanting to control the opposition" and of having imposed Hitto as premier.
Khatib was accusing Qatar of having imposed the election of Hitto against Saudi-backed candidate Imad Mustafa, another opposition source said.
Apart from the Syrian crisis, Arab leaders are expected to discuss the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process based on a 2002 initiative offering normal relations with the Jewish state in return for its pullout from occupied land.