BEIRUT ‚?? France on Tuesday became the first Western country to formally recognize Syria‚??s newly formed opposition coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
The U.S. also recognized the leadership body announced in Qatar Sunday as a legitimate representative, but stopped short of describing it as the ‚??sole‚?Ě one, saying the group must first demonstrate its ability to represent Syrians inside the country.
The two announcements could start a trend toward world recognition of the rebels as the legitimate government of Syria, undercutting whatever legitimacy the regime of President Bashar Assad still has after 20 months of a bloody civil war.
‚??We look forward to supporting the national coalition as it charts a course for the end of Assad‚??s bloody rule, and marks the start, we believe, of a peaceful just and democratic future for the people of Syria,‚?Ě said U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner in Washington.
Under intense international pressure to form an opposition that includes representatives from the country‚??s disparate factions fighting to topple President Bashar Assad, the anti-government groups struck a deal Sunday in Doha, Qatar, to form a coalition headed by former Muslim preacher Mouaz al-Khatib, a moderate religious figure who preaches sectarian unity and can fire up a crowd.
While lacking in political experience, the 52-year-old preacher-turned-activist is described by Syrians as a man of the people ‚?? a modest, unifying figure who commands wide respect among the country‚??s various opposition groups and rebels.
The coalition includes representatives from the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, which was harshly criticized by many, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, for being cut off from rebels fighting the war on the ground and for failing to forge a cohesive and more representative leadership.
The new group is lobbying the international community for more powerful weapons to break the stalemate with the regime. U.S. and French recognition is seen as a welcome boost, but the opposition still has a long way to go to convince the international community the weapons will not fall into the wrong hands.
Islamic extremists have been taking a more public role in the fighting in Syria, and there is evidence of al-Qaida involvement as well.
Al-Khatib warned against the militarization of the Syrian uprising and the pitfalls of sectarianism very early in the conflict.
‚??My brothers, we lived all our lives, Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites and Druse as a one- hearted community, and with us lived our dear brothers who follow Jesus, peace be upon him,‚?Ě he told a crowd of supporters in a Damascus suburb in April 2011, only one month into the uprising.