U.S. Will Grant Recognition to Syrian Rebels, Obama Says
WASHINGTON — President Obama said Tuesday that the United States would formally recognize a coalition of Syrian opposition groups as that country’s legitimate representative, in an attempt to intensify the pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to give up his nearly two-year bloody struggle to stay in power.
Mr. Obama’s announcement, in an interview with Barbara Walters of ABC News on the eve of a meeting in Morocco of the Syrian opposition leaders and their supporters, was widely expected.
But it marks a new phase of American engagement in a bitter conflict that has claimed at least 40,000 lives, threatened to destabilize the broader Middle East and defied all outside attempts to end it. The United States had for much of the civil war largely sat on the sidelines, only recently moving more energetically as it appeared the opposition fighters were beginning to gain momentum — and radical Islamists were playing a growing role.
Experts and many Syrians, including rebels, say the move may well be too little, too late. They note that it is not at all clear if this group will be able to coalesce into a viable leadership, if it has any influence over the fighters waging war with the government or if it can roll back widespread anger at the United States.
“The recognition is designed as a political shot in the arm for the opposition,” said Andrew J. Tabler, a senior fellow and Syrian expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But it’s happening in the context of resentment among the Syrian opposition, especially armed elements, of the White House’s lack of assistance during the Syrian people’s hour of need. This is especially true among armed groups.”
The announcement puts Washington’s political imprimatur on a once-disparate band of opposition groups, which have begun to coalesce under pressure from the United States and its allies, to develop what American officials say is a credible transitional plan to govern Syria if Mr. Assad is forced out.
Moreover, it draws an even sharper line between those elements of the opposition that the United States champions and those it rejects. The Obama administration coupled its recognition with the designation hours earlier of a militant Syrian rebel group, the Nusra Front, as a foreign terrorist organization, affiliated with Al Qaeda.
“Not everybody who is participating on the ground in fighting Assad are people that we are comfortable with,” Mr. Obama said in an interview on the ABC program “20/20.” “There are some who I think have adopted an extremist agenda, an anti-U.S. agenda.”
But Mr. Obama praised the opposition, known formally as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, for what he said was its inclusiveness, its openness to various ethnic and religious groups, and its ties to local councils involved in the fighting against Mr. Assad’s security forces.
“At this point we have a well-organized-enough coalition — opposition coalition that is representative — that we can recognize them as the legitimate representative of Syrian people,” he said.
The United States is not the first to make this step. Britain, France, Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council have also recognized the Syrian opposition group. But experts note that the support has done nothing to change the military equation inside Syria, where Mr. Assad has stubbornly clung to power despite gains by rebel fighters. Mr. Assad continues to rely on air power and artillery to pummel rebel positions even as fighting has spread into his stronghold of Damascus.
Mr. Obama notably did not commit himself to providing arms to the rebels or to supporting them militarily with airstrikes or the establishment of a no-fly zone, a stance that has led to a rise of anti-American sentiment among many of the rebels.
That is the kind of half-step that has led to mounting frustration in Syria, peaking this week with the blacklisting of the Nusra Front. Far from isolating the group, interviews with Syrian rebels and activists show, it has for now appeared to do the opposite. It has united a broad spectrum of the opposition — from Islamist fighters to liberal and nonviolent activists who fervently oppose them — in anger and exasperation with the United States.
The United States has played an active role behind the scenes in shaping the opposition, insisting that it be broadened and made more inclusive. But until Mr. Obama’s announcement, the United States had held off on formally recognizing the opposition, asserting that it wanted to use the lure of recognition to encourage the rebel leaders to flesh out their political structure and fill important posts.
In recent weeks, the coalition has been developing a series of committees on humanitarian assistance, education, health, judicial matters and security issues. It has not, however, been able so far to agree on a prime minister or a cabinet even after extensive negotiations.
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Maysun/European Pressphoto Agency
Fighters for the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo, Syria, on Tuesday.
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And the coalition is still unlikely to be viewed as a legitimate representative by the many Syrians still supporting the government or by many fighters who have little connection to the exile opposition.
While last week coalition members suggested that choosing a prime minister was important for persuading the United States to offer recognition, American officials said the White House had decided that the opposition had made sufficient progress for now. The American hope is that the opposition, in conjunction with local councils that are being formed in Syria, can help govern areas that have been wrested from Mr. Assad’s control, provide public services like law enforcement and utilities and perhaps even channel humanitarian assistance. Alluding to this role, Mr. Obama said that the opposition would “have some responsibilities to carry out.”
But Mr. Obama’s move does not go so far as to confer on the opposition the legal authority of a state. It does not, for example, recognize the opposition’s right to have access to Syrian government funds, take over the Syrian Embassy in Washington or enter into binding diplomatic commitments.
It is also unclear to what extent the move might influence the situation inside Syria, where the pace of the fighting has intensified. A senior American official who is attending the meeting in Morocco said Tuesday that none of the rebel military commanders from the Free Syrian Army would be attending the meeting on Wednesday.
“There are people here who definitely coordinate with armed groups, with the Free Syrian Army,” he said. “That is not to say they are giving instructions to it; they do not,” he said. “It is not to say that they are telling it what to do or what to say in the international field; they are not. In a sense, the Free Syrian Army is a separate organization.”
The widespread dissatisfaction among rebel groups — and the broader population — raises the possibility that now, just as the United States is stepping up efforts to steer the outcome in Syria, it may already be too late.
More than 100 antigovernment organizations and fighting battalions have called online for demonstrations on Friday under the slogan, “No to American intervention — we are all Jabhet al-Nusra,” a reference to the Nusra Front’s Arabic name.
“Anti-American sentiment is growing, because the Americans are messing up in bigger ways lately,” said Nabil al-Amir, an official spokesman for the rebel military council for Damascus and its suburbs, one of the committees that the United States and its allies are trying to coax into a unified rebel command. With every step to correct earlier mistakes, he said, “they make a bigger mess.”
Liberals activists blame American inaction for giving jihadists a leading role in the conflict. Rival rebel groups have declared solidarity with the Nusra Front, and Islamists have congratulated it on its new distinction. And seemingly everyone accuses the United States of hypocrisy for not slapping the terrorist label on Mr. Assad, whose forces have killed far more civilians than any rebel group.
The United States on Tuesday issued a more complete justification for blacklisting the Nusra Front, saying that the group has killed Syrian civilians in more than 40 suicide bombings.
And it announced a new wrinkle: It is also blacklisting pro-government militias accused of killing civilians as part of “the Assad regime’s campaign of terror and violence.”
The militias, a Treasury Department statement said, would include what it called the shabiha and Jaish al-Sha’bi, or the People’s Army, which it said was created with the help of Mr. Assad’s allies Iran and the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah and modeled on Iran’s Basij militia.
The Treasury Department singled out a shabiha leader, Ayman Jaber, as well as two other shabiha members, including Mahir al-Asad, who was accused along with Mr. Jaber of planning an attack on the United States Embassy in 2011. Apart from these designations, it may be hard to define who exactly is blacklisted under the heading of “shabiha,” which is not the name of an organization but a catchall term for pro-government gangs.