Syria opposition wins recognition of powerful bloc

TIPPING POINT::After 20 months of violence, Syrian rebels’ being recognized by a group of Western and Arab nations may be the start of the end to the war

Reuters, MARRAKECH, Morocco

Thu, Dec 13, 2012 - Page 1

Western and Arab nations sympathetic to the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave full political recognition yesterday to the opposition, reflecting a hardening consensus that the 20-month-old uprising could be nearing a tipping point.

Meeting in the Moroccan city of Marrakech as rebels battled al-Assad’s troops on the outskirts of his Damascus power base, the “Friends of Syria” group called on the Syrian leader to step aside and warned him against using chemical weapons. At the same meeting, the leader of Syria’s opposition coalition called on the Alawite minority to launch a campaign of civil disobedience against al-Assad, an Alawite who faces a mainly Sunni Muslim uprising against his rule.

Hours earlier, US President Barack Obama announced that Washington would now recognize the newly formed coalition of opposition groups as Syria’s legitimate representative, joining France, Britain, Turkey and the Gulf states.

“Participants acknowledge the National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and the umbrella organization under which the Syrian opposition are gathering,” a draft declaration of the Marrakech meeting said.

The gathering brings together Western and Arab nations opposed to al-Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for 42 years. However, it excludes Russia, China and Iran, which have backed al-Assad or blocked efforts to tighten international pressure on him.

Participants announced the creation of a relief fund “to support the Syrian people,” calling on states and organizations to make contributions to the fund.

The draft text called on the UN Security Council, which has been paralyzed by the major powers’ disagreements over Syria, to come up with “a meaningful and robust response” to the crisis and urged countries that support al-Assad to “reconsider their positions.”

Although the text made no commitment to arm the rebels, a diplomat following the talks said participants agreed on “the legitimate need of the Syrian people to defend itself against the violent and brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad.”

Qatar and Saudi Arabia are already arming and financing the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and other militant groups, while Iran is bankrolling al-Assad.

Another diplomat said Western powers did not rule out arming rebels in the future, but would want assurances about where the weapons would flow — pointing to atrocities committed by rebel fighters and the radical Islamists in their ranks.

Syria’s state news agency SANA said Obama’s recognition of the political opposition, which coincided with Washington’s designation of the radical Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra group, part of the rebel force against al-Assad, as a terrorist organization “proves American hypocrisy.”

In central Syria, an attack on a village killed or injured as many as 200 of al-Assad’s Alawite minority sect, activists said, but it was unclear who was behind the assault.

The mainly Sunni Muslim rebels have scored a string of victories against al-Assad’s forces, many of them from his Alawite religious minority sect.

“We send a direct message to the Alawite brethren. The Syria revolution is extending its hand to you, so extend your hand back and start civil disobedience against the regime because it repressed you like it repressed us,” opposition leader Mouaz Alkhatib said.