SyriaU.S. formally to recognize rebel coalition as Syria’s legitimate rulers

Published 12 December 2012

The end of the Assad family rule over Syria, which begun in 1970, has been moved that much closer yesterday (Tuesday) when President Barack Obama said the United States would formally recognize a coalition of Syrian rebel groups as Syria’s legitimate rulers; other countries, notably France, the United Kingdom, and Turkey have already recognized the opposition as Syria’s legitimate government, but the U.S. move is a game changer; the big question is whether the armed groups inside Syria would feel compelled to accept what members of the coalition agree upon

The end of the Assad family rule over Syria, which begun in 1970, has been moved that much closer yesterday (Tuesday) when President Barack Obama said the United States would formally recognize a coalition of Syrian rebel groups as Syria’s legitimate rulers.

The president made the announcement just before a scheduled meeting in Morocco of the Syrian opposition leaders and their supporters.

Other countries, notably France, the United Kingdom, and Turkey have already recognized the opposition as Syria’s legitimate government, but the U.S. move is a game changer, in three ways:

  • The United States will now be in a stronger position to help cement a working relationship among those anti-regime groups which are more hospitable to Western values and interests
  • At the same time, the move will allow the United States more effectively to exclude from a future political role in post-Assad Syria those groups which are actively hostile to Western values and interests. The Obama administration has already moved to do this yesterday by designating the jihadi Al Nusra Front as a foreign terrorist organization, affiliated with sl Qaeda.
  • The move will also allow the United States to exert more influence over what groups receive what aid from outside sources. This has been an especially delicate issue, as developments in Syria unfolded in a fashion similar to what happened in Libya, with the two main outside supporters of the anti-regime groups offering support to different groups:  whereas Saudi Arabia, in both Libya and Syria, supported moderate Islamic and secular (but Sunni-based) anti-regime elements, Qatar, in both countries, lavished support on the most fundamentalist and most militant Jihadi militias (Qatar is playing the same game vis-à-vis the Palestinians: three weeks ago the Emir of Qatar was the first head of state to visit Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, offering the Islamic group $450 million in unconditional aid. Qatar has yet to offer a penny to the more moderate Palestinian Authority).

The New York Timesquotes Obama to say on the ABC program “20/20” that “Not everybody who is participating on the ground in fighting Assad are people that we are comfortable with… There are some who I think have adopted an extremist agenda, an anti-U.S. agenda.”

Obama also said that “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 the Syrian people.”

The Times notes that in recent weeks the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces has developed a series of committees on humanitarian assistance, education, health, judicial matters, and security issues.

Obama’s statement yesterday is an indication that the administration has concluded that the disparate opposition groups have made sufficient progress on achieving a working relationship among them and on jointly agreeing on a mechanism for establishing the principles and procedures for the initial phase of post-Assad governance to merit recognition.

The Obama administration is mindful of the fact that lack of preparation and planning for post-Saddam Iraq hobbled the Bush administration in its handling of that country once Saddam’s forces were defeated. The administration is thus pushing the opposition coalition to begin to discuss local and regional governing issues with local councils which have already been formed all over Syriain Syria to fill the vacuum left by the collapsing institutions of the Assad regime. The administration is exerting pressure on the opposition groups to coordinate the provision of public services such as law enforcement and utilities, and perhaps even take responsibility for distributing humanitarian assistance.

The Times reports that the administration’s move does not confer on the opposition the legal authority of a state – the United States does not recognize the opposition’s right to gain access to Syrian government money, take over the Syrian Embassy in Washington, or enter into binding diplomatic commitments.

The big question is whether the armed groups inside Syria would feel compelled to accept what members of the coalition agree upon. Observers note that none of the rebel military commanders from the Free Syrian Army would be attending the meeting in Morocco on Wednesday.

Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow and a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Times that: “The recognition is designed as a political shot in the arm for the opposition. 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.”

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