MARRAKESH - Arab and Western states recognised the National Coalition as the sole representative of Syrians on Wednesday, as the opposition bloc urged the US to review its blacklisting of rebels.
The declaration issued at a “Friends of Syria” meeting in Morocco coincided with battlefield gains by rebels fighting Assad’s forces, and a rapidly deteriorating refugee situation as winter sets in.
“Today, full recognition is given to the National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people,” Moroccan Foreign Minister Saad Eddine El Othmani told a news conference after the meeting his government hosted in the southern city of Marrakesh.
The talks on the 21-month conflict rocking Syria brought together representatives from 114 countries, including about 60 ministers, the Syrian opposition and international organisations.
They came just a day after US President Barack Obama endorsed the National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, following a similar move by the European Union. Russia, the Assad regime’s most powerful ally, expressed surprise, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying “the United States has decided to place all its bets on an armed victory of the National Coalition”.
In its communique, the Friends of Syria again called on Assad to stand down, and stressed his regime would not escape punishment for violations of international law.
It also warned Damascus against using chemical weapons, saying this “would draw a serious response from the international community”.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague described the growing recognition of the National Coalition as “real progress”. “Then the important thing is to channel more assistance through them - in our case... non-lethal assistance... and then of course we need more humanitarian aid.”
Those at the meeting also called for unimpeded access for humanitarian groups inside Syria.
Under pressure to unite, the Syrian opposition agreed in Doha on November 11 to establish the coalition and group the various rebel forces under a supreme military council.
But rebels in Aleppo, a key front line in northern Syria, rejected the agreement, saying they want an Islamic state. Among them was Al-Nusra Front, which the United States blacklisted on Tuesday as a “terrorist” organisation, citing its links to Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
National Coalition chief Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib called on Washington to “re-examine” the move. “We can have ideological and political differences with certain parties, but the revolutionaries all share the same goal: to overthrow (Assad’s) criminal regime”.
Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who led the US delegation to the talks, said: “We have extended an invitation to Moaz al-Khatib and the Coalition leadership to visit Washington at the earliest opportunity.” But he defended the terror blacklisting.
“Al-Nusra, as the president made clear, is little more than a front for Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and all of us have seen what Al-Qaeda in Iraq tried to do to threaten the social fabric of Iraq,” Burns said.
In the latest violence, explosions outside the Syrian interior ministry, including a car bomb, killed seven people and wounded 50 others on Wednesday, a security official said. Interior Minister Mohammad al-Shaar and other top ranking officials escaped unharmed, state television reported. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 25 people were killed and wounded.
Damascus also issued a warrant for the arrest of Lebanese former prime minister Saad Hariri, accusing him of sending weapons to rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, the state SANA news agency reported on Wednesday.