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Syria rebel coalition calls for use of Patriot missiles

Despite the coalition's request at an Arab League summit, the U.S. says the Patriot system in Turkey is for defensive use and not for striking Syrian warplanes.

March 26, 2013|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • Moaz Khatib, the outgoing leader of the Syrian opposition coalition, speaks to the media in Doha, Qatar. His coalition was seated as the legitimate government of Syria at an Arab League summit in Qatar.
Moaz Khatib, the outgoing leader of the Syrian opposition coalition, speaks… (European Pressphoto Agency )

BEIRUT — A Syrian opposition coalition was seated as the legitimate government of Syria at an Arab League summit Tuesday, and the coalition's outgoing leader promptly pushed for the United States to use Patriot missile defense batteries against Syrian warplanes.

Moaz Khatib, who resigned Sunday from the opposition coalition amid reports of deep divisions in its ranks, said he put the Patriot missile request to U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry during a meeting last month in Rome.

"I have asked Mr. Kerry to extend the umbrella of the Patriot missiles to cover the Syrian north and he promised to study the matter," Khatib said in a speech in the Qatari capital, Doha, where the 22-member Arab League was meeting.

U.S. officials later said there was no plan to change the strictly defensive role of Patriot missiles in Turkey.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has deployed Patriot batteries along the Turkish-Syrian border to guard against missile attacks from Syria. NATO has vowed that the weapons would be used only to defend Turkey and not to strike targets in Syrian airspace.

On Tuesday, the White House reiterated that there was no intention to use the Patriots to target Syrian air power, which would make NATO a belligerent in the Syrian conflict.

"At this time, NATO does not intend to intervene militarily in Syria," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters in Washington.

Western officials also responded with little enthusiasm to Khatib's suggestion that the fractious opposition group be seated at the United Nations as the legal representative of Syria.

The Syrian government in Damascus on Tuesday lambasted the presence of the opposition group at the Arab League as a sellout to Israel and the United States. Syria, a founding member of the league, calls itself the "beating heart" of Arabism.

In Damascus, state news media reported another day of intense rebel shelling of the capital, in what appears to be an accelerated campaign of bombardment. Rebels on the outskirts have been firing mortar shells into the heavily guarded capital, the seat of President Bashar Assad's government.

The strikes killed at least seven people Tuesday, including four employees of the official Syrian Arab News Agency who died when the agency's offices were targeted, the government said. The government blamed "terrorists" for the attacks, which also struck several schools and a hospital, the news service reported.

A pair of car bombs in the city killed at least two people and injured others, the news agency reported.

Car bombs and mortar rounds are favored weapons of the rebels, who are seeking to oust Assad.

Khatib, a charismatic Damascus cleric and petroleum engineer, resigned as head of the opposition coalition amid differences with other members. But there were indications Tuesday that he would rescind his resignation.

Many nations have recognized the group that Khatib has led, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. But that does not imply full diplomatic recognition.

The Arab League suspended Syria's membership in late 2011 amid criticism of the government's crackdown on the uprising against Assad's rule.

The Patriot batteries were deployed this year after a request from Turkey, which forms the eastern bulwark of the NATO alliance. The country had expressed alarm about apparently errant Syrian artillery shells landing in Turkish territory.

Syrian rebels have made major territorial gains in Syria during the two-year conflict but have been unable to counter the government's monopoly on air power. The opposition has long called on the West to deploy its air resources to create a no-fly zone in rebel-occupied parts of northern Syria. But U.S. and other Western officials have been hesitant to become directly involved in the strife.

The Syrian government and its allies, Russia and Iran, have denounced the deployment of Patriot missiles in Turkey as a provocation that could escalate tensions.

The Syrian dissident coalition has received financial and material support from other nations, especially Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, all of which share the coalition's goal of toppling Assad. The United States has also backed the group. Khatib has met with Vice President Joe Biden as well as Kerry.

News reports have indicated that Khatib's surprise resignation may be linked to his displeasure over the outsize influence of other nations, especially Qatar, on the Syrian exile group's activities. Various external backers have tried to exert influence on the coalition and on the rebels fighting in Syria.

Qatar and Turkey have worked closely with the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization, to hold sway over opposition activities. Some dissidents have complained that the Brotherhood, which has been banned in Syria for decades, has far too much power in the opposition bloc.

The Syrian government has denounced the coalition as a tool of Persian Gulf nations and Turkey.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

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