Steven Erlanger and Rick Gladstone – New York Times Nov 13, 2012
France announced Tuesday that it was recognizing the newly formed Syrian rebel coalition and would consider arming the group, seeking to inject momentum into a broad Western and Arab effort to build a viable and effective opposition that would hasten the end of a stalemated civil war that has destabilized the Middle East.
The announcement by President François Hollande made France the first Western country to fully embrace the new coalition, which came together this past weekend under Western pressure after days of difficult negotiations in Doha, Qatar.
The goal was to make an opposition leadership — both inside and outside the country — representative of the array of Syrian groups pressing for the downfall of President Bashar al-Assad. Although Mr. Assad is increasingly isolated as his country descends further into mayhem and despair after 20 months of conflict, he has survived partly because of the disagreements and lack of unity among his opponents.
Throughout the conflict, the West has taken half measures and been reluctant to back an aggressive effort to oust Mr. Assad. This appears to be the first time that Western nations, with Arab allies, are determined to build a viable opposition leadership that can ultimately function as a government. Whether it can succeed remains unclear.
Mr. Hollande went beyond other Western pledges of support for the new Syrian umbrella rebel group, which calls itself the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. But Mr. Hollande’s announcement clearly signaled expectations that if the group can establish political legitimacy and an operational structure inside Syria, creating an alternative to the Assad family’s four decades in power, it will be rewarded with further recognition, money and possibly weapons.
“I announce that France recognizes the Syrian National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people and thus as the future provisional government of a democratic Syria and to bring an end to Bashar al-Assad’s regime,” said Mr. Hollande, who has been one of the Syrian president’s harshest critics.
As for weapons, Mr. Hollande said, France had not supported arming the rebels up to now, but “with the coalition, as soon as it is a legitimate government of Syria, this question will be looked at by France, but also by all countries that recognize this government.”
Political analysts called Mr. Hollande’s announcement an important moment in the Syrian conflict, which began as a peaceful Arab Spring uprising in March 2011. It was harshly suppressed by Mr. Assad, turned into a civil war and has left nearly 40,000 Syrians dead, displaced about 2.5 million and forced more than 400,000 to flee to neighboring countries, according to international relief agencies.
“It’s certainly another page of the story,” Augustus Richard Norton, a professor of international relations at Boston University and an expert on Middle East political history, said of the French announcement. “I think it’s important. But it will be much more important if other countries follow suit. I don’t think we’re quite there yet.”
Some drew an analogy to France’s leading role in the early days of the Libyan uprising when it helped funnel aid, and later military support, to the rebels who had firmly established themselves in eastern Libya and would later topple Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. But in Syria, rebels have not been as organized and have no hold on significant amounts of territory — at least not enough to create a provisional government that could resist Mr. Assad’s military assaults. The West has also refused, so far, to impose a no-fly zone over Syria, which was critical to the success of the Libyan uprising.
Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that the new coalition would have to create a secure zone in Syria to be successful, and that that step would require support from the United States, which was instrumental in the negotiations that led to the group’s creation but has not yet committed to giving it full recognition.
What the French have done, Mr. Tabler said, is significant because they have started the process of broader recognition, putting pressure on the group to succeed. “They’ve decided to back this umbrella organization and hope that it has some kind of political legitimacy and keep it from going to extremists,” he said. “It’s a gamble. The gamble is that it will stiffen the backs of the opposition.”
France’s statement also was a clear reflection of frustration with the growing death toll and military stalemate in Syria. It came a week after the re-election of President Obama, who had clearly been unwilling to consider any military policy that could hurt his prospects.
Mr. Hollande’s announcement came as the rebel coalition’s newly chosen leader, Sheik Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, a former imam of the historic Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and a respected figure in Syria, made a broad appeal to Western and Arab countries for recognition and military aid. Foreign ministers of the Arab League, while approving the new group as the “legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition,” have not agreed on recognizing it as a provisional government to replace Mr. Assad.
France, the former colonial power in Syria, has been pressing for a more committed international effort to help the anti-Assad movement. It has pushed the United Nations Security Council and the United States to act more decisively and has promoted economic and oil sanctions against Syria, both in the United Nations and more successfully in the European Union, which had been a top consumer of Syrian oil.
Under the previous center-right presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, France played the leading role in organizing an armed intervention in Libya to save the opposition from Colonel Qaddafi’s forces. Working with the British, Mr. Sarkozy brought Washington along and helped secure a Security Council mandate that was interpreted as covering military intervention in Libya.
Russia and China have said they felt deceived, however, and both have opposed a similar Council resolution on Syria. In addition, the Obama administration has been firmly against any military intervention in Syria on behalf of a more chaotic opposition with a larger, more visible presence of radical Islamic fighters from other countries.
Still, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has been important in pressing for a newly constituted, broader Syrian transitional council of the kind established in Qatar on Sunday.
The French have also been helping with civilian projects in areas of Syria held by opposition forces, working with locals to repair food and milk factories and to provide medical supplies and assistance. The idea, French officials have said, is to help the opposition govern and build credibility in so-called liberated areas.
The recognition by France came as new fighting raged in Syria and international relief agencies warned that the humanitarian crisis there had worsened in the past few weeks.
“People are really on the run, hiding,” said Melissa Fleming, the spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency in Geneva. “They are difficult to count and difficult to access.”
A rebel-held Syrian village at the Turkish border, Ras al-Ain, was bombed by Syrian aircraft for the second consecutive day. And tensions remained high on the armistice line between Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights area controlled by Israel since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Israeli tank gunners blasted a Syrian mobile artillery vehicle there on Monday in response to repeated instances of errant mortar shells landing on the Israeli side.
There were also new indications that the Syrian rebels were obtaining more sophisticated weapons without Western help. The Brown Moses blog, considered an authoritative source on arms used in the conflict, reported new images showing insurgents armed with SA-16 and SA-24 shoulder-fired heat-seeking antiaircraft missiles, apparently captured from the Syrian military. Both systems are newer generations of weapons than rebels have been seen carrying before, and pose a new threat to Syrian military aircraft.
Steven Erlanger reported from Paris, and Rick Gladstone from New York. Reporting was contributed by Neil MacFarquhar and Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon; Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva; and Richard Berry from Paris.