For newly recognized Syrian rebel coalition, a first dispute with US

In Morocco, the 'Friends of Syria' recognized the new rebel coalition. But the day was marred by reports of Scud fire by the Assad regime and by a dispute with the US over designating a group as terrorist. 

Abdeljalil Bounhar/AP
Foreign Ministers pose for photographers during a meeting of the Friends of the Syrian People in Marrakech, Morocco, Dec. 12. More than 100 countries on Wednesday recognized a new Syrian opposition coalition, opening the way for greater humanitarian assistance to the forces battling Bashar Assad and possibly even military aid.

A group of more than 100 countries and organizations including the United States recognized a new rebel coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people at a “Friends of Syria” meeting in Morocco Wednesday.

The recognition, which followed more than a year of international pressure on Syria’s disparate opposition groups to better organize themselves and begin preparing for a post-Assad Syria, was overshadowed by reports that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has started firing Scud missiles at rebel strongholds.

The broad international recognition of the Syrian National Coalition, which came a day after President Obama added the US to a growing list of countries endorsing the collection of Syrian opposition groups, was also marred by disagreement between the new coalition and the US over recent US action targeting Syria’s Al Qaeda-affiliated anti-Assad forces.

The coalition’s leader, Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, called on the US to reconsider its decision Tuesday to list Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra, or al-Nusra Front, as a foreign terrorist organization, saying no action should be taken against any rebel forces whose goal is “the fall of the regime.” No group fighting Assad should be considered a terrorist organization, he said.

The Assad regime refers to all of the forces fighting it as “terrorists.”

The US maintains that the al-Nusra Front is one and the same with Al Qaeda in Iraq. Defense of the group from within the new rebel coalition is likely to sharpen US concerns that Islamist extremists are gaining ground in Syria’s fight and could even threaten to take control of at least parts of Syria as Assad’s control continues to deteriorate.

Reports that Assad is firing Scud missiles on rebel strongholds in the north are also a source of concern for the US, in part because unleashing the notoriously inaccurate missiles suggests a growing desperation on the Syrian leader’s part.

Perhaps even more worrisome is the spillover threat the Scuds pose. US officials worry that a missile even unintentionally striking across the northern border into Turkey could cause Turkey to enter the fight and lead to a dangerous regional expansion of the conflict.

The US was represented at the Marrakesh Friends of Syria meeting by Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who hailed the gathering as an important step in the international community’s efforts to help end Syria’s violence and usher in a political transition post-Assad.

The meeting reportedly resulted in pledges of nearly $150 million in aid to the rebels, including a $100 million commitment from Saudi Arabia.

The US, which is the largest donor of humanitarian aid to Syrians caught in a civil war that has killed more than 40,000 people, has pressed for other countries, in particular wealthy Gulf states, to come forward with more aid.

At the same time, however, some US officials speak privately of their concerns that aid from the Sunni Gulf states – from both governments and individuals – will flow to Syria’s Sunni majority, and in particular to extremist groups like the al-Nusra Front, and raise prospects of sectarian warfare.

Senior US officials discussing this week’s al-Nusra terrorist designation said the US takes every opportunity to convey its concerns about Syria’s extremist forces and Al Qaeda’s growing influence there with Saudi and other Gulf officials.

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