BEIRUT: Arab and Western officials told Syria’s newly formed opposition coalition Tuesday that it must organize itself, unite armed rebel groups, and generate further support inside the country before it can receive weapons and money.
The United States said the Syrian National Coalition, formed Sunday in Qatar, 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.
But Toner said the U.S. policy of providing only non-lethal support and humanitarian aid to the Syrian rebels remained unchanged.
French President Francois Hollande said Paris would look at the question of arming the coalition once it had created a transitional government, although he broke ranks with European allies by recognizing the group as the sole representative of the Syrian people.
“On the question of weapons deliveries, France did not support it as long as it wasn’t clear where these weapons went,” Hollande told a news conference after making the announcement.
“With the coalition, as soon as it is a legitimate government of Syria, this question will be looked at by France, but also by all countries that recognize this government,” he said.
France’s defense minister said the coalition needed to unite armed rebel factions within Syria under its umbrella.
“What happened in Doha is a step forward,” Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters in Paris. “It is still not sufficient to constitute a provisional government that can be recognized internationally. But it’s on the right track.”
The French minister called for “a unification of military action to avoid haphazard military operations” and also urged rebels to rein in radical Islamist “Salafist elements.” European caution, and an Arab League endorsement that stops well short of full recognition, indicate that the coalition forged with such difficulty two days ago may face a tough quest for wholehearted backing, even from its allies.
The six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council have also recognized the National Coalition as “the Syrian people’s legitimate representative,” but the Arab League stopped short of this, saying it saw the alliance as “the legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition.”
Lebanon has maintained a policy of “dissociating” itself from the Syria conflict while Iraq and Algeria expressed reservations about recognizing the opposition group, due to their good relations with Damascus.
EU foreign ministers meeting at the League’s headquarters in Cairo took a similar stance, welcoming the coalition’s formation but declining to extend formal recognition, while calling on it to bring in more regime opponents.
“It is a very important milestone and a very big step toward [recognition],” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on the sidelines of the EU-Arab gathering.
The Europeans wanted to ensure the deal forming the National Coalition was implemented, and to see that the coalition is “as as possible of opposition groups and all communities in Syria,” he said.
“We want to see the Syrian opposition be inclusive ... and have support inside Syria, and if they have this, yes, we will then recognize them as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.”
The hard-won coalition deal reached Sunday in Doha, Qatar calls for the opposition to create a supreme military council to take overall command of rebels fighting to oust Assad’s regime.
The bloc’s leader, moderate Muslim preacher Ahmad Moaz Khatib, said the coalition already had promises of weapons, without specifying from whom.
Damascus ally Moscow has urged the opposition to drop its refusal to negotiate with the Assad regime, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is to meet Wednesday in Riyadh with foreign ministers from Gulf countries for talks expected to highlight their differences on the Syrian conflict.
Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby threw his weight behind the new body, saying he hoped the remaining opposition factions would join the National Coalition.
Inside Syria, regime warplanes carried out a new wave of bombing raids on the strategic town of Ras al-Ain on the border with Turkey a day after deadly airstrikes and shelling, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan stressed that Ankara would not hesitate to respond if threatened. “Nobody should play with fire or try to test Turkey’s patience,” he told deputies of his AK Party.
Elsewhere, fierce clashes rocked the Ghouta orchards east of the capital and the suburb of Daraya to the south after rebels attacked public buildings and a military checkpoint in the two areas, the Observatory said.
In other violence, the governor of the province of Raqqa in the northeast was wounded in an attack on his convoy, the Observatory said. In the same province, a bomb near a church killed a woman, state-run SANA said, blaming rebels.
Near Damascus, the rebel unit the Armored Ghouta Brigade said in an online video posting showing smoke and damage at a military installation that its fighters had stormed an air defense base and “killed many officers.”
The Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists inside Syria, said 142 people were killed in the day’s violence, including 82 in Damascus and surrounding areas.