BRUSSELS/BEIRUT: The EU recognized the new Syrian opposition coalition Monday as NATO said it would urgently consider a request from Ankara to deploy Patriot missiles along Turkey’s troubled border with Syria.
In a new blow to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, the 27-nation EU formally recognized the opposition National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people.
France, which last week became the first Western country to recognize the coalition, had urged fellow EU nations to follow in its footsteps.
Syria headed the agenda as EU foreign and defense ministers flew into Brussels for a day of talks that also touched on the conflict between Israel and Gaza.
Earlier Monday, Italy joined France in recognizing the National Coalition, becoming the second Western country to do so since the opposition formed the group in Qatar on Nov. 11 after 20 months of conflict that activists say has killed more than 39,000 people.
But as clashes raged across Syria, the main Islamist groups in the northern city of Aleppo, a key front line in the civil war, said they rejected the National Coalition.
The U.S. said Monday it is closely monitoring the progress of the new Syrian opposition alliance but is still deciding whether to recognize the body.
“We’re obviously looking at this day by day, week by week. We’re getting to know them better. We’re encouraging them to make more progress,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
The National Coalition aims to present a united front to the international community and is lobbying for arms to help topple the Assad regime.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius last week made a controversial proposal to arm the rebels after lifting an EU embargo on delivering weapons to Syria.
But EU diplomats noted that lifting the bloc’s current embargo, agreed last year, would require unanimity, while delivering arms to one side would be a highly complex matter.
Rejecting the idea out of hand, Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said his country “does not arm people who are fighting.”
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen meanwhile said the alliance, which includes Turkey, had received no formal request from Ankara for the surface-to-air missiles, but that if one was made “we will consider that as a matter of urgency.”
German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere earlier anticipated an imminent request from Turkey, whose border villages have been hit by artillery fire as forces loyal to Damascus battle rebels seeking to oust Assad.
Rebels clashed with armed Kurds near the Turkish border at Ras al-Ain again Monday, which was overrun by the mainly Sunni Muslim Arab rebels on Nov. 8, in the latest sign of an emerging power struggle in Syria’s ethnically diverse northeast.
Fleeing residents said the fighting was between insurgents of the Free Syrian Army and Kurds affiliated with the Democratic Union Party, a Syrian Kurdish party with links to Kurdish separatist militants in Turkey.
Local Kurdish leaders said that up to 20 people had been killed in the fighting and that a rebel sniper had shot dead the leader of Ras al-Ain’s local Kurdish Council, Abed Khalil.
They said a cease-fire was later declared.
Germany and the Netherlands are the two main European nations that possess Patriots, the medium-range ground-to-air missiles made by U.S. group Raytheon. NATO deployed the missiles in Turkey during the 1991 Gulf war and in 2003 during the Iraqi conflict.
“The situation on the Syria-Turkey border is of great concern,” Rasmussen said. “We have all the plans ready to defend and protect Turkey if needed. The plans will be adjusted if necessary to ensure effective protection of Turkey.”
Rasmussen said there was currently no question of imposing a no-fly zone with the backup of the Patriot missiles.
In other fighting Monday, rebels took full control of a large army base in the northern province of Aleppo that had been besieged for weeks, a military source and a watchdog group said. In Damascus rebels said they had also seized the Air Defense Battalion near Hajar al-Aswad after four days of fighting.
The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists and medics, said at least 96 people were killed nationwide Monday – 45 rebels, 26 civilians and 25 soldiers.