France on Tuesday became the first Western country to formally recognize Syria’s newly formed opposition coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
The US also recognized the leadership body announced in Qatar on Sunday as a legitimate representative, but stopped short of describing it as a sole representative, saying the group must first demonstrate its ability to represent Syrians inside the country.
Under intense international pressure to form an opposition that includes representatives from the country’s disparate factions fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the anti-government groups struck a deal in Doha to form a coalition headed by former Muslim preacher Mouaz al-Khatib.
The opposition agreed on Sunday to unify their fighting forces under a military council and to set up a judicial commission for rebel-held areas. They plan to form a provisional government.
The coalition includes representatives from the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, which was harshly criticized by many for being cut off from rebels fighting the war on the ground and for failing to forge a cohesive, representative leadership.
The new group is lobbying the international community for more powerful weapons to break the stalemate with the regime. The US and French recognition is a welcome boost, but the opposition still has a long way to go to convince the international community the arms will not fall in the wrong hands.
The French move was announced by French President Francois Hollande and came 24 hours after the coalition was recognized by the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The Arab League stopped short of granting the bloc full recognition, only saying it saw the alliance as “the legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition.”
France has acknowledged providing communications and other non-lethal equipment to Syrian rebels. It has been a leader in pressing for a tough UN Security Council resolution on Syria, but it has been blocked by Russia and China.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, speaking at the Arab League in Cairo on Tuesday, said the opposition coalition must gain support from within Syria.
“That is a very crucial consideration and if they do these things well, then yes, we would then be able to recognize them as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people,” he said.
Syria’s regime slammed France for recognizing the opposition bloc, saying it amounted to a “declaration of war” as it unleashed tanks and warplanes on rebels yesterday.
“The Doha meeting was a declaration of war. These people [the opposition] don’t want to solve the issue peacefully through the mechanisms of the UN,” Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad told reporters.
Reacting to France’s decision, he said: “Allow me to use the word, this is an immoral position. They are supporting killers, terrorists and they are encouraging the destruction of Syria.”