France recognises new Syria opposition
CAIRO / PARIS / WASHINGTON
AFP photoFrance became the first European power to recognise Syria's new opposition coalition as the sole representative of its people and said on Tuesday it would look into arming rebels against President Bashar al-Assad once they form a government, Reuters reported.
Twenty months into their bloody uprising against Assad, fragmented Syrian opposition groups struck a deal in Qatar on Sunday to form a broad coalition and their leader immediately appealed for European backing.
"I announce today that France recognises the Syrian National Council as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people and as future government of a democratic Syria making it possible to bring an end to Bashar al-Assad's regime," French President Francois Hollande said, breaking ranks with European allies. Six Gulf Arab states took a similar step on Monday.
The question of arming the rebels would be looked at as soon as the rebel coalition formed a transitional government, Hollande told a news conference in Paris.
Arab League and EU foreign ministers meeting in Cairo on Tuesday welcomed the formation of the coalition as an important step forward, although their communique showed they had not reached a unanimous decision to recognise it as Syria's sole authority.
The French announcement came just hours after Syria's newly installed opposition leader urged European states to back the opposition so it could buy weapons.
Paris, one of Assad's harshest critics, had previously ruled out arming rebel forces, concerned that weapons could get into the hands of radical Islamists.
Speaking to Reuters as Arab and European ministers met to discuss Syria at the Arab League in Cairo, Mouaz Alkhatib, the Damascus preacher elected unopposed on Sunday to lead the new group, had asked for diplomatic backing.
"I request European states to grant political recognition to the coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and to give it financial support," he said.
"When we get political recognition, this will allow the coalition to act as a government and hence acquire weapons and this will solve our problems," added Alkhatib, who has been described by supporters as a moderate noted for his embrace of Syria's religious and ethnic minorities.
So far, concerted action on Syria has been thwarted by divisions within the opposition, as well as by big power rivalries and a regional divide between Sunni Muslim foes of Assad and his Shi'ite allies in Iran and Lebanon.
Russia and China, which have lent Assad diplomatic support since the uprising erupted in March last year, have shown no sign of warming towards his Western- and Arab-backed opponents.
US says new Syria body 'a legitimate representative'
The United States said Tuesday the newly formed opposition National Coalition was "a legitimate representative" of the Syrian people, but stopped short of recognizing it as a government-in-exile.
"We now have a structure in place that can prepare for a political transition, but... we're looking for it to still establish the types of technical committees that will allow us to make sure our assistance gets to the right places," State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said.
"We do think this is a legitimate representative of the Syrian people, that it does reflect the Syrian people... that diverse group of Syrian people," he told journalists.
The diverse forces involved in the Syrian coalition agreed on Sunday to unify their fighting forces under a supreme military council and set up a national judicial commission for rebel-held areas in Syria.
The move which came after talks in Doha came after Washington pushed the Syrian National Council to broaden its membership, saying it was not representative of all the groups fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
"We look forward, obviously, to supporting the national coalition as it charts a course for the end of Assad's bloody rule, and marks the start, we believe, of a peaceful, just and democratic future for the people of Syria," Toner said.
He insisted however that the group which emerged Sunday after four days of marathon talks in the Qatari capital resulted from a Syrian-led process.
"We've obviously been instrumental in the creation of -- and the secretary, in fact, has been instrumental in this creation of this group, the Friends of the Syrian People," Toner said.
"They were obviously there in force in Qatar to help, however we could, what was essentially a Syrian-led process. And that's important; it's important to delineate that this was a Syrian-led process, that the Syrians took charge of this, that they were the ones who worked through the long hours over the weekend and created this national council." France on Tuesday became the first country to recognize the newly formed opposition group as the sole representative of the Syrian people and said it was time to review whether the rebels should be given arms.
But Toner said the US policy of providing only non-lethal support and humanitarian aid to the Syrian rebels remained unchanged.
Britain has also said it wants to see more evidence that the grouping has strong support inside Syria before formally recognizing it as effectively a government-in-exile.
London is to host a meeting on emergency aid for the Syrian people on Friday, which will be attended by the US special coordinator for Middle East transitions, ambassador Bill Taylor, Toner said.
He said one of the goals of Doha was to see "the creation of a political body that was more representative of the Syrian people. We do believe that has been accomplished." "We also want to see that it has a demonstrated ability to represent Syrians within Syria," Toner said, adding the group now had to show it can "funnel assistance to where it's needed most" and prove itself "effective."