Syrian rebels agreed to a unified military command and called for Iranian forces to leave the country, as the U.S. and other nations formally recognized the coalition fighting 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 124 nations and organizations 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.
“We all recognize the coalition,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters a day after President Barack Obama signaled official U.S. backing.
The allies reiterated a call for Assad to step aside and warned the regime not to use chemical or biological weapons, saying such action would be met with “a serious response.” The New York Times, citing unnamed U.S. officials, reported today that Syrian government forces have fired Scud missiles at insurgents in recent days.
The Syrian regime has recently escalated to “more vicious weapons” such as missiles and anti-personnel “barrel bombs,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said today in Washington. There have been reports posted on Google Inc.’s YouTube video service from inside Syria since September documenting the dropping of so-called barrel bombs -- oil drums packed with explosive material and scrap metal over rebel areas.
The Assad regime appears to be starting to use its arsenal of Scud ballistic missiles in a desperate effort to intimidate its opponents and sap the morale of rebel forces, a Defense Department official said today.
Scuds are inaccurate and largely ineffective military weapons that are useful mostly to attack urban areas where precision doesn’t matter, said the official, who follows Mideast developments closely. Because the 1950s-vintage missiles arrive with no warning and can kill or injure large numbers of civilians, they are a terror weapon, said the official, who likened Syria’s use of them against its own cities to Nazi Germany’s V-2 missile attacks against the U.K. during World War II, which were terrifying though ineffective.
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.
Outside attempts to bolster the opposition come as the fighting increasingly splits Syria along sectarian lines.
The Sunni Muslim-led opposition is confronting a government whose top officials, including Assad, are drawn from the minority Alawite sect, affiliated to Shiite Islam. Iran is training a pro-regime militia force drawn from the Shiite and Alawite communities, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in August. Iran denies it has a military presence in Syria.
Late yesterday, Obama said in an interview with ABC television that the U.S. officially recognized the rebel coalition. He called the policy shift “a big step.”
“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. The U.S. has no plans to sell the rebels arms, Obama said.
Russia was surprised by the U.S. recognition which violates a plan for a Syrian transitional government negotiated and signed in Geneva, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted as saying by the Interfax agency.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, British Foreign Secretary William Hague and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius were also among those attending in Marrakesh.
“Transition is coming to Syria one way or the other,” Burns said, as he invited al-Khatib, formerly a cleric at Damascus’ main mosque, to Washington.
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 to a relief fund made at the meeting, Saudi Arabia promised $100 million, the U.S. pledged a further $14 million, and Germany offered 22 million euros ($29 million). Burns said the U.S. contribution will be used for nutrition support for children, emergency medical needs and winterization supplies to families in need inside Syria. The new aid brings the U.S. total to $210 million in humanitarian assistance.
France, one of the first countries to recognize the opposition, said it was too early to supply arms to the rebels, Fabius told reporters. “We have decided not to move on this,” he said, adding “we shall see in the coming months.”