Major powers give Syria’s opposition full political recognition after US President Barack Obama said Washington would recognise a newly-formed coalition against President Bashar al-Assad.
The announcement on the eve of talks in Morocco came as the rebels intensified their push on Damascus amid growing signs that the 20-month uprising may be nearing a tipping point.
On Tuesday it emerged that 200 members of Assad’s Alawite minority were injured or killed in an attack on their central Syrian village, activists said.
President Obama’s announcement on US television that Washington would now recognise the newly-formed opposition coalition as Syria’s legitimate representative is likely to intensify the pressure for Assad to relinquish power.
But his announcement stopped short of authorising the US to supply weapons to Syria’s opposition – something Obama has steadfastly refused to do.
“We’ve made a decision that the Syrian Opposition Coalition is now inclusive enough, is reflective and representative enough of the Syrian population, that we consider them the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime,” Obama said in an interview with ABC News.
The “Friends of Syria,” a loose forum of governments opposed to Assad, which is meeting on Wednesday in the Moroccan city of Marrakech, called on Assad to step aside and warned him against using chemical weapons.
Little in the way of direct military or financial support is expected to be channelled to the coalition at the Morocco meeting, partly because it lacks the ability to act as a provisional government and because Western powers are still wary of backing Islamist fighters in the rebel ranks.
A diplomatic source in the Middle East gave Reuters a draft text agreed on Tuesday night by the Friends of Syria. It said the participants “acknowledged the National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people”.
The source said discussion also centered on reference to the right to self defence, which was argued by “a Gulf country but other states were not in favour”.
He said a compromise was found stating that the group “recognized the legitimate need of the Syrian People to defend itself against the violent and brutal regime of Bashar Al Assad’s”.
France, Britain, Turkey and the Gulf states have already granted the formal recognition. The European Union, in a meeting on Monday, moved a step closer towards recognition. Russia restated its opposition on Wednesday.
Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov said the US announcement contradicts and agreement reached in June to seek political transition adding that it appeared that it had “placed all bets on the armed victory” of the Syrian opposition coalition over then government.
But Syrian opposition campaigner Walid al-Bunni welcomed the news. “Every week of delay means the destruction of villages and parts of cities and towns and the killing of an average of 1,000 people,” said Bunni.
“Recognition of the coalition will help but it will not end the crisis. There needs to be real international will to stand by the Syrian people and get rid them of this dictatorship.”
But the US has angered some of those within the opposition by designating the radical Islamic rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra – which has claimed responsibility for dozens of car bombs and fights alongside other rebel Syrian brigades – as a terrorist organisation.
Farouk Tayfour, deputy leader of the Syrian Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, said Washington had made a “very wrong and hasty decision”.
Jabhat al-Nusra: Terrorists or opposition assets? Lindsey Hilsum blogs.