Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Obama says US recognizes Syrian opposition coalition

Bill Pugliano / Getty Images

President Barack Obama said the U.S. has recognized the Syrian opposition coalition as representing the country's citizens in an interview with ABC News.

By NBC News staff and wire services

The United States now considers the Syrian opposition coalition to be the "legitimate representative" of the nation, President Barack Obama said Tuesday.

"We've made a decision that the Syrian opposition coalition is now inclusive enough, is reflective and representative enough of the Syrian population that we consider them the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime," Obama said in an interview with ABC News.

The move, which was widely expected, could give new international legitimacy to the rebels fighting to overthrow the regime of President Bashar al-Assad but stops short of authorizing the U.S. to arm the opposition, something Obama has steadfastly refused to do.

France, Britain, Turkey and the Gulf states led the way last month in recognizing the opposition coalition. But Washington held off until now, demanding the groups, dogged by splits and rivalries throughout their battle to end the Assad family's long authoritarian rule, do more to coalesce into a unified front.

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A formal endorsement by Obama, accused by critics of failing to respond forcefully enough to the bloody Syrian conflict, could mark a new phase in his efforts to isolate Assad, who has defied repeated U.S. calls to step down.

But Obama made clear that he remains cautious about some of the armed Syrian factions linked to the political coalition and is not ready to start supplying weapons to the rebels, something he has steadfastly resisted despite demands from some Republican critics.

"Not everybody who's participating on the ground in fighting Assad are people who we are comfortable with," Obama said. "There are some who, I think, have adopted an extremist agenda, an anti-U.S. agenda, and we are going to make clear to distinguish between those elements."

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Obama specifically singled out the radical Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra, which the United States on Tuesday designated as a foreign terrorist organization that it said was trying to hijack the rebellion on behalf of al-Qaida in Iraq.

U.S. officials said the al-Nusra group had claimed responsibility for carrying out nearly 600 attacks in major cities that have killed numerous innocent Syrians during the uprising against Assad.

U.S. officials said it was an important signal both to the Syrian opposition and its foreign supporters, particularly in the Gulf, that al-Nusra and its ilk cannot play a part in Syria's eventual political transition.

Tuesday's action came as U.S. officials were set to attend the Friends of Syria meeting in Marrakech, to discuss the Syria crisis, as rebels push forward on the battlefield and move to unify the political opposition.

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