First Published: 2012-12-12

 

Friends of Syria begin meeting in Morocco

 

Meeting will discuss post-Assad political transition, mobilisation of humanitarian aid amid Al-Qaeda concerns.

 

Middle East Online

By Simon Martelli - MARRAKESH, Morocco

Syrian opposition boosted by US recognition

Countries opposed to President Bashar al-Assad's regime meet in Morocco on Wednesday for talks on Syria's 21-month conflict after the US gave official backing to a new opposition bloc.

The Friends of Syria group meeting of Arab and Western states coincides with battlefield gains by Islamist rebels suspected of Al-Qaeda links, and a rapidly deteriorating refugee situation as winter sets in.

Headlining the talks, which are to begin in Marrakesh at 0930 GMT, are two key issues, namely the political transition after Assad's eventual fall and mobilising humanitarian aid.

With the total death toll from the civil war now topping 42,000, according to monitors, the UN refugee agency said the number of Syrian refugees who had fled to neighbouring countries and North Africa had now passed half a million.

But in a major boost for the newly formed opposition National Coalition, US President Barack Obama endorsed the group as "the legitimate representative" of the Syrian people.

"We have 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," Obama said on the eve of the Morocco meeting.

Russia, the Assad regime's most powerful ally, expressed surprise at the move, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying "the United States has decided to place all its bets on an armed victory of the National Coalition".

Under pressure to unite, the Syrian opposition agreed in Doha on November 11 to establish the National Coalition and group the various rebel forces under a supreme military council.

But jihadist rebels in Aleppo, a key front line in northern Syria, rejected the coalition, saying they want an Islamic state.

Among them was the Al-Nusra Front, which the United States blacklisted on Tuesday as a "terrorist" organisation.

Obama's recognition follows a similar move by the European Union on Monday, after EU foreign ministers met the coalition's leader, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib.

Earlier, Western diplomats and coalition members had expressed confidence the opposition group would consolidate its international backing as a viable alternative to Assad's beleaguered regime.

"It is our goal that, after the European Union, now the 130 states in the Friends of Syria group will send a message of recognition to the National Coalition of the Syrian opposition," said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.

Al-Qaeda concerns

Despite the growing recognition, several EU member states have expressed reservations about the group, in terms of how representative it is and its democratic commitment.

Reflecting another potential threat to the coalition's credibility was the US decision to blacklist the Al-Nusra Front, which it accuses of hijacking the Syrian uprising.

Obama on Tuesday repeated State Department claims that Al-Nusra, while portraying itself as part of the legitimate opposition, was in fact a front for Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

A spokesman for the National Coalition insisted, however, that there were "inaccuracies" around Al-Nusra.

Yaser Tabbara said the extremist group could be divided into two factions -- one that supported the regime and committed acts of terror, and the other that did not -- and urged dialogue with the latter.

"They're not going to be a stumbling block in the recognition of the coalition," he said.

Tabbara also underlined hopes the Marrakesh meeting would help alleviate Syria's mounting humanitarian crisis and support the financial needs of "liberated" areas, in terms of salaries and services, which the group estimates at nearly $500 million per month.

Germany said late Tuesday it would provide another 22 million euros ($29 million) in humanitarian aid for victims and refugees of the conflict, bringing its total contribution to 90 million euros.

Westerwelle said the funds would go in particular to the Red Cross, the World Food Program and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

 

Austria adopts 'Islam of European character'

Netanyahu speech to test resilience of US-Israeli ties

IS executioner identity revealed

HRW: Kurds preventing return of Arabs to disputed Iraq areas

FIFA cites 'problems' in worker conditions for Qatar World Cup

Rouhani adviser blames ‘extremists’ for rights violations

US-led coalition raids IS targets in northeastern Syria

3 sentenced to death over Bahrain police killings

Hollande condemns French MPs for meeting Assad

One dead in series of Cairo bombings

UN Security Council calls for stepping up Yemen talks

Kerry: US, Iran have 'mutual interest' in defeating IS

Australian FM warns women against 'romantic adventure' with IS

Lebanese synagogue gets second life

Tuareg chief issues plea for Mali unity

UN: Saleh amassed between $32-60 billion

Libyan FM warns country could be next Syria

Iran rejects US claims of role in Yemen crisis

French planes on Gulf-based carrier make first strikes

Top US official warns against Netanyahu speech to congress

Four French MPs meet Assad in Syria

Mosque torched near Bethlehem

Egypt TV host faces trial for false bathhouse accusations

Turkey drives hard bargain over crucial missile deal

Obama nominates first US ambassador to Somalia since 1991

Obama praises Qatar as 'strong partner' in fighting IS

Saudi goes hi-tech against IS threat

Sisi grants Egypt authorities sweeping anti-terror powers

Algeria police prevent anti-shale gas protest

Turkey revives Istanbul canal plan

Egypt to host Arab League summit end of March

Madrid breaks up online network recruiting young women for IS

Jordan delivers military equipment to Lebanon

Britain 'too late' to inform Turkey on missing girls

Palestinians ordered to pay over $218 million over Jerusalem attacks

French president vows tougher penalties for hate speech

More Egyptians fleeing Libya

Russia voices confidence of Iran nuclear deal

Qatar emir in US amid accusations of backing Islamist groups

Kerry, Zarif hold talks again on Iran nuclear programme

Libya parliament suspends participation in UN talks

1,000 Egyptians evacuated from Libya

Egypt jails 2011 pro-democracy activist for 5 years

Russia offers Iran missiles despite sanctions

Egypt embassy in Sanaa shut over 'bad' security