US recognises Syrian opposition coalition

The Syrian National Coalition celebrates significant political gain in winning formal recognition from the US but the opposition coalition is still split ideologically and faces a credibility gap. From correspondents in Marrakech and Damascus

MARRAKECH, MOROCCO // Syrian rebels celebrated a significant political gain yesterday when their revamped opposition coalition won formal recognition from the United States.

But delegates to a Friends of Syria conference here said the group still faces deep ideological splits and obstacles to its credibility with people inside Syria.

Barack Obama, the US president, backed the 200-member Syrian National Coalition (SNC), formed last month, as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

He said the SNC was now "inclusive enough, reflective and representative enough" of the Syrian population, marking the culmination of more than a year of encouragement by the international community for the opposition to unite.

The endorsement followed similar ones by the European Union, other members of the Friends of Syria group and more than 100 countries. The SNC spokesman Yaser Tabbara said yesterday he hoped the EU would now lift sanctions on supplying heavy weapons to the rebels.

He outlined plans to appoint ambassadors, issue passports and appeal for US$500 million (Dh1.83bn) a month in international support to run the parts of the country now controlled by the opposition to Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian president. . Although Mr Tabbara said he hoped that the money would be pledged soon, other opposition members said this was unlikely.

France's foreign minister Laurent Fabius told reporters that "important" financial contributions were announced at the meeting attended by representatives from 114 countries, including about 60 ministers, the Syrian opposition and international organisations. Saudi Arabia offered $100 million, the US pledged a further $14m in medical aid and Germany offered $29m.

Syrian state media branded the US support for the SNC an "act of aggression" that placed "obstacles in the way of the international efforts seeking a solution to the crisis in Syria through dialogue".

The United Nations is engaged in discussions with Mr Al Assad's regime, and Syria's chief allies, Russia and Iran, have called for dialogue. Russian officials expressed surprise at the US endorsement. "The United States has decided to place all its bets on an armed victory of the National Coalition," foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday.

At the meeting, some said a prime minister and cabinet for Syria would be chosen soon, although others said the mechanism for doing so was far from agreed upon. More than 100 countries support the Friends of Syria initiative, and representatives said they were counting on the recent creation of a military council and an aid coordination body to provide the accountable partners for international support that are lacking.

A trust fund, coordinated by Emirati and German leaders of an economic working group, is expected to be set up within three months, to process international donations and allocate funding for reconstruction and aid projects with Syrian partners. It is seeking toreceive hundreds of millions of dollars for aid and reconstruction, said Abrahim Miro, an opposition activist who is working to set up the fund.

But deep disagreements were apparent between the US and some factions within the coalition, centring on the US designation this week of the extremist fighting group Jabhat Al Nusra as a terrorist organisation, and broadening to include the issue of the role of Islam within a post-Assad Syria.

The terrorist designation should be reviewed, said the head of the coalition, Moaz Al Khatib, former imam of the Ummayad mosque in Damascus.

He rejected extremist ideology but his words reflected a concern among many at the meeting that declaring the group terrorists has hurt the opposition's credibility on the ground where Jabhat Al Nusra is considered an effective fighting force.

The head of the coalition's new military council and the Muslim Brotherhood opposition body have also condemned the designation.

"I think the Sunni Islamist opposition views them as maybe extreme, but on the right side and scoring victories," said one western diplomat. Much of the new momentum in the opposition has come from gains on the ground, which the diplomat said had even Mr Al Assad's long-term supporters measuring in months the time until he falls.

Fighting rocked Damascus again yesterday, with air strikes, artillery and mortar fire hitting the suburbs during the day. Three bombs targeted the Syrian interior ministry building in Damascus, state TV said. There was no immediate word on casualties. Food and fuel shortages showed no sign of easing with cooking gas trading at five times its official rate, and some restaurants effectively closed because it was no longer economical to cook.

Mr Tabbara, the SNC spokesman, said the coalition would continue to work with any group whose agenda was ending the suffering of the Syrian people - to include Jabhat Al Nusra. He said he worried that the perception on the ground would be that "the US is designating those who fight Bashar Al Assad as terrorists".

One delegate said some opposition members believe the group's emphasis on inclusivity of Syria's diverse sects and ethnicities has resulted in an ethos that is too secular.

"Some religious groups say that for the past 40 years they have not been able to say anything about their religion in Syria," he said. "They say 'how about a little nod to us', something about being majority Sunni Muslim.

"The future of Syria is very much a contested terrain, theoretically. Practically, the guys with the arms on the ground are going to force a certain reality."

* Phil Sands reported from Damascus, with additional reporting from Reuters and the Associated Press