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US promises to recognize Syrian rebels

Obama moves to turn up heat on Assad to quit

WASHINGTON — President Obama said Tuesday that the United States will formally recognize a coalition of Syrian opposition groups as that country’s legitimate representative, in an attempt to intensify the pressure on President Bashar Assad to give up his nearly two-year-long bloody struggle to stay in power.

Obama’s announcement, in an interview with Barbara Walters of ABC News on the eve of a meeting in Morocco of the Syrian opposition leaders and their supporters, was widely expected.

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But it marks a new phase of US engagement in a bitter conflict that has claimed at least 40,000 lives, threatened to destabilize the region, and defied all outside attempts to end it. The United States had for much of the civil war largely sat on the sidelines, only recently moving more energetically as it appeared the opposition fighters were beginning to gain momentum — and were becoming dominated by radical Islamists.

Specialists and many Syrians, including rebels, say the move may well be too little, too late. They note that it is not at all clear if this group will be able to coalesce into a viable leadership, if it has any influence over the fighters waging war with the government, or if it can roll back widespread anger at the United States.

“The recognition is designed as a political shot in the arm for the opposition,’’ said Andrew J. Tabler, a senior fellow and Syrian analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. ‘‘But it’s happening in the context of resentment among the Syrian opposition, especially armed elements, of the White House’s lack of assistance during the Syrian people’s hour of need. This is especially true among armed groups.’’

The announcement puts Washington’s political imprimatur on a once-disparate band of opposition groups, which have begun to coalesce under pressure from the United States and its allies, to develop what US officials say is a credible transitional plan to govern Syria if Assad is forced out.

Moreover, it draws an even sharper line between those elements of the opposition that the United States champions and those it rejects. The Obama administration coupled its recognition with the designation hours earlier of a militant Syrian rebel group, the Nusra Front, as a foreign terrorist organization, affiliated with Al Qaeda.

''Not everybody who is participating on the ground in fighting Assad are people that we are comfortable with,’’ Obama said in an interview on the ABC program ‘‘20/20.’’ “There are some who I think have adopted an extremist agenda, an anti-US agenda.’’

But Obama praised the opposition, known formally as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, for what he said was its inclusiveness, its openness to various ethnic and religious groups, and its ties to local councils involved in the fighting against Assad’s security forces.

“At this point we have a well-organized-enough coalition — opposition coalition that is representative — that we can recognize them as the legitimate representative of Syrian people,’’ he said.

The United States is not the first to make this step. Britain, France, Turkey, and the Gulf Cooperation Council have also recognized the Syrian opposition group. But specialists note that the support has done nothing to change the military equation inside Syria, where Assad has clung to power despite gains by rebel fighters. Assad continues to rely on air power and artillery to strike rebel positions even as fighting has spread into his stronghold of Damascus.

Obama notably did not commit himself to providing arms to the rebels or to supporting them militarily with air strikes or the establishment of a no-fly zone.

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