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Recognition from France boosts Syrian rebels

Weapons could be reward for legitimacy

“As soon as it is a legitimate government of Syria, this question will be looked at by France,” President Francois Hollande said about helping arm the rebel group.

IAN LANGSDON/EPA

“As soon as it is a legitimate government of Syria, this question will be looked at by France,” President Francois Hollande said about helping arm the rebel group.

PARIS — France announced Tuesday that it is recognizing the newly formed Syrian rebel coalition and will consider arming the group, seeking to inject momentum into a broad Western and Arab effort to build a viable and effective opposition that would hasten the end of a stalemated civil war that has destabilized the Middle East.

The announcement by President Francois Hollande made France the first Western country to fully embrace the new coalition, which came together last weekend under Western pressure after days of negotiations in Doha, Qatar.

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The goal was to make an opposition leadership — both inside and outside the country — representative of the array of Syrian groups pressing for the downfall of President Bashar Assad. Although Assad is increasingly isolated as his country descends further into mayhem and despair after 20 months of conflict, he has survived partly because of the disagreements and lack of unity among his opponents.

Throughout the conflict, the West has taken half measures and been reluctant to back an aggressive effort to oust Assad. This appears to be the first time that Western nations, with Arab allies, are determined to build a viable opposition leadership that can ultimately function as a government. Whether it can succeed remains unclear.

Hollande went beyond other Western pledges of support for the new Syrian umbrella rebel group, which calls itself the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. But Hollande’s announcement clearly signaled expectations that if the group can establish political legitimacy and an operational structure inside Syria, creating an alternative to the Assad family’s four decades in power, it will be rewarded with further recognition, money, and possibly weapons.

“I announce that France recognizes the Syrian National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people and thus as the future provisional government of a democratic Syria and to bring an end to Bashar al-Assad’s regime,’’ said Hollande, who has been one of the Syrian president’s harshest critics.

As for weapons, Hollande said, France had not supported arming the rebels up to now, but ‘‘with the coalition, as soon as it is a legitimate government of Syria, this question will be looked at by France, but also by all countries that recognize this government.’’

‘As soon as it is a legitimate government of Syria, this question will be looked at by France.’

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Political analysts called Hollande’s announcement an important moment in the Syrian conflict, which began as a peaceful Arab Spring uprising in March 2011.

It was suppressed by Assad, turned into a civil war, and has now left nearly 40,000 Syrians dead, displaced about 2.5 million, and forced more than 400,000 to flee to neighboring countries, according to the United Nations.

''It’s certainly another page of the story,’’ Augustus Richard Norton, professor of international relations at Boston University and a specialist on Middle East political history, said of the French announcement. ‘‘I think it’s important. But it will be much more important if other countries follow suit. I don’t think we’re quite there yet.’’

Some drew an analogy to France’s leading role in the early days of the Libyan uprising, when it helped funnel aid, and later military support, to the rebels who had firmly established themselves in eastern Libya. But in Syria, rebels have not been as organized and have no hold on significant amounts of territory — at least not enough to create a provisional government that could resist Assad’s military assaults. The West has also refused, so far, to impose a no-fly zone over Syria, which was critical to the success of the Libyan uprising.

Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that the new coalition would have to create a secure zone in Syria to be successful, and that that step would require support from the United States, which was instrumental in the negotiations that led to the group’s creation but has not yet committed to giving it full recognition.

What the French have done, Tabler said, is significant because they have started the process of broader recognition, putting pressure on the group to succeed.

''They've decided to back this umbrella organization and hope that it has some kind of political legitimacy and keep it from going to extremists,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s a gamble.’’

France’s statement also was a clear reflection of frustration with the growing death toll and military stalemate in Syria.

Hollande’s announcement came as the rebel coalition’s newly chosen leader, Sheik Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, a former imam of the historic Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, made a broad appeal to Western and Arab countries for recognition and military aid.

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