November 14, 2012

France recognizes Syrian rebel coalition

The U.S. issues a qualified endorsement, and the two actions could trigger more support to weaken Assad.

The Associated Press

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.

click image to enlarge

A rebel sniper aims at army positions in Syria. The rebels are seeking more powerful weapons from other countries.

The Associated Press

ASSAD'S GOVERNMENT STILL HAS FIREPOWER BUT ARMY IS BEING STRETCHED THIN

BEIRUT – Nearly 20 months into the Syrian uprising, President Bashar Assad's message to the world has been nothing if not consistent: His military is strong, his enemies are mere terrorists and he will prevail in the end.

And despite a unity deal signed by Syrian rebels over the weekend, which they hope will persuade foreign backers to send more powerful weapons to use to battle the regime, Damascus still has enough firepower and resources to keep up the fight.

"Syria has more than enough weapons for fighting the rebels," said Igor Korotchenko, a retired colonel of Russia's military general staff who is now editor of National Defense magazine. "As long as Bashar Assad has the money to pay his military, it will keep fighting."

He said Syria has more than 1,000 tanks, along with a system of repair shops created during Soviet times and enough experienced personnel to service the weapons.

Analysts say it is difficult to come up with reliable figures on the Syrian air force and air defenses because of the extreme secrecy surrounding its military matters. Assad's regime – its forces stretched thin on multiple fronts – has significantly increased its use of air power against Syrian rebels since the summer.

For now, government jets and helicopters are largely out of reach of the rebels' arsenals, and Assad projects confidence at every turn. In an interview last week with Russia Today TV, Assad vowed to "live and die" in Syria, saying the conflict will never drive him into exile.

Still, the regime cannot maintain the status quo indefinitely.

A Mideast intelligence official said Syria's estimated 300 jet fighters – mostly Russian-made – lack the appropriate maintenance, spare parts and missile warheads. Syria's estimated three dozen helicopters, also mostly Russian-made, are being "exhausted from overuse," he said.

"The Syrian army is being stretched to the maximum because of simultaneous crackdowns on rebel holdouts across Syria," said the official, who asked that his name and country not be used because he is not authorized to speak publicly.

– The Associated Press

The U.S. also recognized the leadership body announced Sunday in Qatar as a legitimate representative, but stopped short of describing it as the "sole" 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," U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in Washington.

Under intense international pressure to form an opposition that includes representatives from the country's disparate factions fighting to topple Assad, the anti-government groups struck a deal Sunday in Doha, Qatar, to form a coalition headed by former Muslim preacher Mouaz al-Khatib.

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 would 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.

"We now have a structure in place that can prepare for a political transition, but we're looking for it to still establish the types of technical committees that will allow us to make sure our assistance gets to the right places, both non-lethal and humanitarian," Toner told reporters in Washington.

The French decision was announced by President Francois Hollande, who used his first news conference since taking office six months ago to formally recognize the new group.

"I announce here that France recognizes the National Syrian Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people and, therefore, as the future provisional government of democratic Syria," Hollande said.

France, which has played a leading role in efforts to force Assad from power, was also the first to recognize the Syrian National Council. Hollande made no mention of that group Tuesday.

France has acknowledged providing communications and other non-lethal equipment to Syrian rebels. It has been a leader in pressing for a tough U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria, but it has been blocked by Russia and China.

In Syria on Tuesday, violence continued across the country, particularly in the northeastern corner near the border with Turkey.

 

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