Syrian rebels agreed a unified military command and called for the withdrawal of Iranian forces from the country, after the U.S. officially recognized the coalition seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
“We ask Iran to listen to the plight of the Syrian people,” Mouaz al-Khatib, head of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, said in Marrakesh, Morocco, where officials from nations including the U.S, France and Saudi Arabia met today. The opposition leader also said the unified forces would form the core of the new Syrian army after Assad’s overthrow and pledged his opposition to extremism.
President Barack Obama announced the U.S. policy shift in an interview with ABC News yesterday, calling it “a big step.” The U.K., France and the European Union already recognize the coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
More than 41,000 Syrians have been killed since the anti-Assad uprising began in March last year and another 1.2 million have been forced from their homes, according to opposition and United Nations estimates. Iran is training a militia force drawn from the minority Shiite and Alawite communities to bolster Assad’s government, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in August. Iran denies it has a military presence in Syria.
“The Syrian opposition coalition is now inclusive enough, is reflective and representative enough of the Syrian population that we consider them the legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” Obama said.
Russia was surprised by the U.S. decision, which violates a plan for a Syrian transitional government negotiated and signed in Geneva, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, according to the Interfax agency.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius were among officials from more than 124 countries and organizations represented in Marrakesh.
The transition is coming to Syria one way or the other,’’ Burns said, as he invited al-Khatib, formerly a cleric at Damascus’ main mosque.
The rebels’ pledge on a more unified military structure came after appeals from supporters including Fabius for the coalition to “reinforce its civil and military cohesion.”
Among the pledges of additional support made at the meeting, Saudi Arabia promised $100 million, the U.S. pledged a further $14 million in medical aid and Germany offered 22 million euros ($29 million).
The U.S. is “trying to make a virtue out of necessity,” said Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington policy group. “The question now is how far are we prepared to take this. I’d be stunned if we are prepared quickly to take lethal action.”
France said it was too early to supply arms to the rebels, Fabius told reporters. “We have decided not to move on this,” Fabius said, adding “we shall see in the coming months.”
The U.S. recognition doesn’t include armaments either, though it does carry responsibilities, Obama said.
The U.S. wants “to make sure they organize themselves effectively, that they are representative of all the parties, that they commit themselves to a political transition that respects women’s rights and minority rights,” he said.
Dennis Ross, a former Obama adviser and now a counselor with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the administration is seeking greater influence with the Syrian opposition -- a sign the Assad government is unraveling.
“What happens among the opposition is going to shape the future of Syria” and it is in U.S. interests to foster a more secular government over one of radical Islamists, Ross said in an interview before Obama’s announcement.
The U.S. won’t support factions in the coalition with extremist ties, Obama said. He singled out the Jabhat al-Nusra group, which the U.S. has designated as a terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaeda in Iraq.