DOHA // The Syrian rebels' political leader took the country's seat at the Arab League yesterday to a wave of applause, and immediately demanded its place at the United Nations too.
In a passionate speech that electrified the League summit in Doha, Moaz Al Khatib interspersed politics with vivid descriptions of the human toll of the conflict, and urged Nato to deploy Patriot missile systems to defend rebel-held areas.
"We on behalf of our people demand … the seat at the United Nations and also at international organisations," he said.
Mr Al Khatib said he had asked the US secretary of state John Kerry "to extend the umbrella of the Patriot missiles to cover the Syrian north and he promised to study the subject", although a Nato official in Brussels said it had "no intention to intervene militarily in Syria".
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, who is leading the UAE delegation at the summit, described Mr Al Khatib's speech as "touching", and an expression of Syria's aspirations.
"We consider the UAE a supporter of the Syrian people," Mr Al Khatib said after meeting Sheikh Mohammed, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Foreign Minister, and other UAE delegates.
Mr Al Khatib, whose resignation as president of the SNC on Sunday threw the opposition into turmoil, did not discuss his position in the coalition.
But delegates and opposition figures at the summit said his presence indicated that he would not immediately quit his post.
The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who lobbied for the opposition to take Syria's seat at the Arab League, referred to Mr Al Khatib as president of the opposition, as did the league secretary general Nabil ElAraby.
"Why isn't it clear who's leading the coalition? It's Moaz Al Khatib, unequivocally," said Yaser Tabbara, an adviser to the new Syrian National Coalition prime minister, Ghassan Hitto, who was also at the meeting. "He's the head of the delegation, he's the head of the coalition and from a legal standpoint, his resignation was not accepted by the opposition's general assembly."
The rebel flag replaced that of the Syrian regime, which prompted an angry reaction from media supportive of the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.
"Shame on you, Arab brothers," the Tishreen newspaper said.
Syria's 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."
Mr Al Khatib also called on countries that had frozen funds of the Bashar Al Assad regime to turn them over to the coalition "so that they can be redirected to the reconstruction of Syria".
He rejected concerns about Syria's minorities being marginalised as the conflict takes a sectarian turn.
"At the beginning of the revolution, some people tried to have a civil war on the coast where we have Sunni and Alawite, but we know we are the same people," he said. "The Syrians are Syrians and they will go on like that with dignity."
Mr Khatib's demand for Syria's UN seat is seen not merely as symbolic but addressing numerous legal issues that have plagued the opposition's attempts to build a provisional government in rebel-held areas.
Most immediately, recognition would allow the UN to coordinate humanitarian relief through the coalition rather than the regime, as international law currently requires. The government of Mr Assad has tightly regulated the humanitarian organisations working in the country and prevented transfers of supplies from Turkey.
Full recognition at the UN could also allow the opposition to procure arms, said Mr Tabbara, the advisor to the SNC's prime minister.
A summit draft resolution on Syria gives member states the right to offer Syrians all means of self-defence including arms. The resolution affirms "the right of every state to offer all forms of self-defence, including military, to support the resistance of the Syrian people and the Free Syrian Army".
Although Syria dominated discussions, Palestine also figured heavily.
Qatar's emir proposed creating a US$1 billion (Dh3.76bn) fund aimed at "preserving the Arab nature of Jerusalem". The fund, to which Qatar pledged an initial $250 million, should be administered by the Islamic Development Bank, Sheikh Hamad suggested.
Egypt's president told delegates that he will deal "firmly" and "decisively" with any foreign attempt to meddle in the affairs of his country, mired in turmoil for most of the two years since Hosni Mubarak stepped down. Mohammed Morsi said Egypt did not interfere in other countries' domestic affairs and expected to be treated similarly. Turkey's foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu discussed the rapprochement between his country and Israel, after an apology from the Israelis for casualties suffered when the Israeli defence forces boarded a Turkish flotilla attempting to break a blockade of the Gaza strip in May 2010.
Mr Davutoglu said the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had assured Turkey that he expected his government to offer compensation for Turkish victims.
After a public session, private discussions continued through the afternoon, during which delegates were expected to discuss proposals backed by Qatar to reform the Arab League.
Mr ElAraby said reform was overdue, calling for a "full review of Arab League charter", which was first drafted after the Second World War.