WASHINGTON: The Obama administration is preparing to recognize Syria's new opposition council as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in the coming weeks, paving the way for greater U.S. support for groups seeking to oust President Bashar Assad's regime, officials said Thursday.
Announcement of the move - which has already been taken by several U.S. allies - is planned on or around a conference of more than 70 nations in Morocco on Dec. 12. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is planning to attend the latest so-called Friends of Syria gathering.
The new status is expected to be accompanied by pledges of additional humanitarian and nonlethal logistical support for the opposition, but it is unlikely to result in U.S. military assistance, at least in the short term. Providing arms remains a matter of intense debate inside the administration, the officials said.
They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Speaking at a conference focused on Syria in Washington, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, suggested that the administration was getting closer to upgrading its recognition of Syria's opposition council.
"They are a legitimate representative of the Syrian people's aspirations," Ford said. "And we will work with them. We will cooperate with them. They have a vision of Syria. It's a vision that we strongly support of a country that would be democratic, that would respect human rights, and that would be a force for stability in the region."
"They are making real progress, and I expect that our position will evolve as they themselves develop," he added.
Recognition of the council as the sole representative of Syria's diverse population would bring the United States into line with Britain, France and several of America's Arab allies, which took the step shortly after the body was created at a meeting of opposition representatives in Qatar on Nov. 11.
The U.S. had been leading international efforts to prod the fractured Syrian opposition into coalescing around a leadership that would truly represent all of the country's factions and religions. Yet it has held back from granting recognition to the group until it demonstrates that it can organize itself in credible fashion.
In particular, Washington had wanted to see the group set up smaller committees that could deal with specific immediate and short-term issues, such as governing currently liberated parts of Syria and putting in place institutions to address the needs of people once Assad is ousted. Some of those committees could form the basis of a transitional government.
Despite personality clashes and some lingering divisions, the opposition coalition met again in Cairo on Wednesday and Thursday and filled committees to deal with media outreach, international law, membership issues and financial aid, according to participants.
It is still under international pressure to name a transitional government with 10 to 12 ministers, including for defense, and to bridge gaps between opposition members abroad and leaders in rebel-controlled areas of Syria. The coalition is unlikely to agree on a complete leadership anytime soon, members told The Associated Press.
The U.S. evolution in recognizing Syria's opposition closely mirrors the process the administration took last year in Libya.
In that case, Libya's National Transitional Council moved from being "a'' legitimate representative to "the" legitimate representative of the Libyan people. While the revolution was still going on, the council then opened an office in Washington, and the administration sent the late Ambassador Chris Stevens to Benghazi, Libya, as an envoy in return. The move also opened the door for Libya's new leaders to access billions of dollars in assets frozen in U.S. banks that had belonged to the Gadhafi regime.
It would be unclear, given the violence in Syria, if the U.S. will send any representative to rebel-controlled areas of the country. The conflict started 20 months ago as an uprising against Assad, whose family has ruled the country for four decades. It quickly morphed into a civil war, with rebels taking up arms to fight back against a bloody crackdown by the government. According to activists, at least 40,000 people have been killed since March 2011.
The international community is split on how to stop the violence. On Thursday, the U.N. envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said he had elements for a possible peace plan but they were unworkable while world powers remained divided. Russia and China have stymied attempts by the U.S. and its Western and Arab allies to increase global pressure on Assad.
For U.S. options outside the U.N., Ford said providing weapons to rebels remained an option. But he explained why he thought it was still a bad idea.
"Arms are not a strategy; arms are a tactic," Ford said. "A military solution is not the best way for Syria. Efforts to win this by conquering one side or the other will simply prolong the violence and actually aggravate an already terrible humanitarian situation. Syria needs a political situation."
Ford said any discussion of arms needed to take into account the growing presence of extremists in Syria, citing the activity of the al-Qaida front Jabhat al-Nusra and recent fighting between Kurds and extremists. He said extremist activity was hampering hopes of a peaceful end to the crisis.
"There is no sign off any kind of political deal to be worked out between the opposition groups and the regime," Ford said. "That means the fighting is going to go on."