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Terrorism & Security

Will US recognition of Syrian opposition group open channels for weapons support? (+video)

The US has refused Syrian rebels weapons because of the presence of jihadi groups fighting there. Could recognition of the Syrian Opposition Coalition change this?

By Staff writer / December 12, 2012

A Free Syrian Army fighter takes position as he points his weapon in Aleppo's al-Amereya district Tuesday.

Aaref Hretani/Reuters

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Middle East Editor

Ariel Zirulnick is the Monitor's Middle East editor, overseeing regional coverage both for CSMonitor.com and the weekly magazine. She is also a contributor to the international desk's terrorism and security blog. 

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Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been uprooted by the country's brutal civil war.

The United States last night granted long-demanded recognition to a Syrian opposition council as the legitimate representative of Syrians opposing President Bashar al-Assad, but any celebration was short-lived. A spokesman for the opposition council called for "real support" today, meaning weapons and other forms of military aid.

"We've made a decision that 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 in opposition to the Assad regime, and so we will provide them recognition," President Barack Obama said last night, according to the Wall Street Journal. "It's a big step."

Recognition of the opposition coalition, formed last month to replace an earlier, largely ineffective iteration, comes amid substantial rebel military gains and a sense that President Assad is in his most precarious position yet after months of bloody fighting.

“Recognition is nice, but we need real support,” said Walid al-Bunni, a spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, according to the Associated Press. “I will be happy after the conference if we have something for the Syrian people.”

By real support, Mr. Bunni likely meant weapons – something the Syrian opposition has requested repeatedly and which the US has steadfastly refused because it says it cannot ensure those weapons will not end up with anti-US jihadi groups widely believed to be fighting in Syria alongside Syrian rebels. Britain has also consistently rejected the possibility of military aid. 

AP reports that there were no representatives of the opposition's military wing at today's meeting in Morocco, but Western officials will meet with them in Turkey next week, according to Reuters.

A Western diplomat at the meeting told Reuters that arming the rebels has not been ruled out but that "assurances" about the destination of the weapons would be required first. "No option is ruled out. But there are big issues about the legality of intervening in a civil war. Any support to any group depends on the command control and the discipline on the ground," he said.

The Syrian rebel forces are still a relatively disorganized entity in comparison to standing armies, but they have made major strides in their organization, tactics, and capabilities in the last couple months. In addition to a substantial bloc of territory in northwest Syria stretching from Aleppo west to the border with Turkey, they now hold a similarly contiguous strip of territory from eastern Syria to southwest of Damascus, according to Reuters.  

According to residents in central Syria, where rebels have had a "string of victories," Assad's forces have been unable to regain control. Rebels insist that they can only maintain that momentum if they are provided with heavy weapons that can rival those of the regime forces. 

"The rebels are now much closer to the palace. Bashar is under siege. His end will be like Gaddafi's end. Didn't Bashar say, 'I was born in Syria and will die in Syria'? This is what Gaddafi said as well, and that's it," Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader Farouq Tayfour said at the meeting in Morocco, according to Reuters.

The US only recently began actively engaging with the opposition, likely spurred on by a combination of rebel military gains that made their success seem more likely and by concerns about the growing influence of Islamist units. It has now inserted itself into the upheaval energetically, leading efforts to build up the second iteration of the opposition coalition, but The New York Times reports "experts and many Syrians, including rebels, say the American move may well be too little, too late" to exercise any real influence over the rebels or to overcome anger at the US for its slow response. 

As the US was taking steps to recognize the opposition coalition, it was also gathering the information needed to formerly sanction one of the most high-profile and successful of the rebel militias, the Jabhat al-Nusra Front, in order to prevent Americans from providing support for the group. The group has declared a string of victories against regime forces and has been perhaps the most successful of the rebel units, but it also has ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq, which played a powerful role in the Sunni insurgency in Iraq.

The Obama administration yesterday connected the group to Al Qaeda in Iraq and said that Jabhat al-Nusra has claimed responsibility for nearly 600 attacks in Syria in the last year. The treasury department classified its efforts as "attempts to hijack the Syrian rebellion, a pro-democracy uprising at its roots that has no connection to global jihadist ideologies."

But Jabhat al-Nusra has curried favor among rebels for taking action, and the blacklisting risks raising their ire, as The New York Times reported earlier this week in an article in which it described the group as one of the uprising's "most effective fighting forces."

The Nusra Front “defends civilians in Syria, whereas America didn’t do anything,” said Mosaab Abu Qatada, a rebel spokesman. “They stand by and watch; they look at the blood and the crimes and brag. Then they say that Nusra Front are terrorists."

On Friday, demonstrators in several Syrian cities raised banners with slogans like, “No to American intervention, for we are all Jebhat al-Nusra,” referring to the group’s full name, Ansar al-Jebhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham, or Supporters of the Front for Victory of the People of Syria. One rebel battalion, the Ahrar, or Free Men, asked on its Facebook page why the United States did not blacklist Mr. Assad’s “terrorist” militias.

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