x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Qatar's emir proposes Jerusalem fund as Arab League summit opens

Members of Syrian National Coalition take Syria's seat as the meeting gets underway. Elizabeth Dickinson reports from Doha.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, is greeted by Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, in Doha on Monday. WAM / Reuters
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, is greeted by Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, in Doha on Monday. WAM / Reuters

DOHA // The Syrian opposition officially took Syria's seat at a summit of Arab leaders opened today that is expected to focus on the war in Syria as well as on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, opened the meeting by demanding an end to the fighting in Syria and proposing a US$1 billion fund for the preservation of Jerusalem as a capital for future Palestinian state.

"Arab rights are not [up] for compromise and Israel has to be aware of this fact," Sheikh Hamad said.

Syria's former opposition leader Moaz Al Khatib is expected to address the Arab League summit "in the name of the Syrian people", despite having resigned as president of the Syrian National Coalition on Sunday.

"After … prayers and consulting many trustworthy figures … I have decided to make a speech," the former preacher said on his Facebook page on Monday.

Mr Al Khatib arrived in Doha late last night.

The coalition's representative in Doha, Nizar Al Haraki, said Mr Al Khatib would head the Syrian opposition's eight-member delegation.

That gesture was intended to set the tone for the summit, where Syria will top the agenda.

Host Qatar had hoped to use the summit as an opportunity to build further regional consensus in support of Syria's opposition.

"The summit was designed to be a positive step forward for the political transition phase of the Syrian conflict and to assist with creating the sense of a rising, unified opposition that could challenge [Syrian president] Bashar Al Assad," said Michael Stephens, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute, who was attending the meeting in Doha.

On Sunday, Mr Khatib stepped down after four months as leader, citing frustration with the international community's response to the crisis.

He said "many international and regional actors try to drag the Syrian boat to their side".

His resignation came on the same day that the Free Syrian Army, the umbrella group representing a significant number of the rebel factions fighting inside Syria, refused to recognise Ghassan Hitto as interim prime minister.

Mr Hitto, a US-educated Syrian business executive, was appointed by the SNC last week with the task of forming a government to oversee rebel-held areas. Mr Al Khatib and Mr Hitto had disagreed on the possibility of talks with the Syrian government in Damascus.

While Mr Al Khatib had pushed for a political solution with elements of the regime that had not been directly involved in the crackdown, Mr Hitto used his first speech as prime minister to say there would be no negotiations.

The SNC announced on Sunday that neither Mr Hitto nor the council's general assembly accepted Mr Al Khatib's resignation and that Mr Al Khatib would "continue the management of the coalition at this stage".

Many here in Doha were caught off guard by Mr Al Khatib's resignation, diplomats arriving for the meeting said.

Qatar's prime minister and foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor Al Thani, said Sunday that he regretted Mr Al Khatib's decision to step down.

"It's a very important moment for Syria, especially when everyone or almost everyone agreed to give the [Arab League] seat to the opposition," Sheikh Hamad said. "We respect [Mr Al Khatib] and we feel that it's important for him not to lose this moment."

The uncertainty over the SNC leadership also comes as the US has begun to slowly shift its position toward supporting the rebels.

Washington has declined to provide arms to the opposition directly, but The New York Times and TheWall Street Journalreported on the weekend that the CIA was offering intelligence assistance to help direct arms shipments sent to rebels by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Heads of state and government from across the region, including the leaders of Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia and Kuwait, among others, are meeting today amid tight security.

The UAE delegation is led by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai.

Sheikh Mohammed is accompanied by a high-level UAE delegation that includes the Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, and the Minister of Economy, Sultan bin Saeed, among others.

The meeting in Doha is just the second gathering of heads of state since the Arab Spring swept the region in 2011, displacing four long-time leaders.

As recently as 2010, Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi played host to the gathering. Last year, Iraq hosted the summit in Baghdad, hoping to throw off its image as a war-beleaguered capital.

Discussions are also planned on the situation in Palestine and a resolution backed by Qatar to reform the Arab League, including a restructure of the executive body.

In the past, Qatar has sharply criticised the Arab League as being toothless and ill-equipped to deal with regional challenges.


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