Rebels clean their weapons and check their ammunition supply in Aleppo,… (Khalil Hamra / Associated…)
WASHINGTON — President Obama on Wednesday praised a new Syrian opposition coalition as "a legitimate representative of the Syrian people" but pointedly said Washington was not yet prepared to recognize the group as a government in exile or provide arms to antigovernment rebels.
The president, drawing a tight boundary around the U.S. role in Syria, also repeated warnings about the presence of "extremist elements" within the fragmented ranks of Syrian armed rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad.
In his first remarks on Syria since his reelection, Obama gave no sign that his administration was reconsidering its generally cautious stance on the conflict. That position apparently is being maintained despite pressure from within the United States and from allies such as Turkey and Persian Gulf states to offer more robust support, including heavy arms, to Syrian opposition forces.
The president's comments squelched, at least for now, speculation that the White House — which has called on Assad to resign — would move more aggressively on Syria once the election was over.
Fears are rising that the almost 20-month-old conflict could spark a regional conflagration in the volatile Middle East. Episodes of violence have already spilled over to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, while hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have poured into neighboring nations.
The White House appears intent for the moment on maintaining its policy of providing only "nonlethal" aid to the opposition. It likewise seems reluctant to act on dissidents' calls for a no-fly zone over Syria, a move that would require a substantial military commitment.
An influx of Islamic militants, including Al Qaeda sympathizers, into the heavily decentralized rebel ranks has given Obama and his advisors pause about handing over sophisticated weaponry.
"We have seen extremist elements insinuate themselves into the opposition," Obama responded to a sole question about Syria in his postelection news conference. "One of the things that we have to be on guard about, particularly when we start talking about arming opposition figures, is that we're not indirectly putting arms in the hands of folks who would do Americans harm or do Israelis harm or otherwise engage in ... actions that are detrimental to our national security."
Observers have voiced fears, for instance, that shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, which the rebels covet, could end up in the possession of militants and be used against civilian airliners or allied aircraft.
Experts have also cited the example of blowback from the 1980s Afghanistan conflict, when Washington lavished arms and support on Islamic insurgents who later helped form Al Qaeda and the Taliban movement.
The new Syrian opposition coalition, formally known as the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, is seeking international recognition as a government in exile. The group named as its president Moaz Khatib, a moderate cleric and petrochemical engineer who has taken a strong stance in favor of democracy and against sectarianism.
International recognition of a government in exile in would ease the path for the opposition to receive and purchase arms. Rebel forces, mostly equipped with AK-47 rifles, say they have no way to counter increasing attacks by government jet fighters and helicopters.
On Tuesday, France became the first Western nation to recognize the coalition as "the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people," in the words of President Francois Hollande.
But the French leader said the question of arming the opposition was on hold until the rebels formed a transitional government.
Left unsaid at Obama's news conference Wednesday was whether the White House would give a green light for other countries or third parties to step up arms shipments to the rebels. The gulf nations of Qatar and Saudi Arabia are widely believed to have helped arm and equip various rebel factions. But there have been reports that U.S. officials have pressured gulf allies not to provide certain weaponry, such as shoulder-fired missiles.
Obama did laud the new coalition — formed Sunday in the Qatari capital, Doha, after marathon talks and intense international pressure — as "a broad-based, representative group."
The United States and other nations had urged Syria's external political opposition — dominated by longtime exiles and the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group — to diversify its base. The new coalition says it is more inclusive of Syria's minorities than earlier opposition groups and counts a substantial membership inside Syria.
Coalition leaders also say their goal is creation of a democratic government in Syria, where the Assad family has ruled in autocratic fashion for more than 40 years. U.S. officials plan to watch the dissident bloc closely, Obama indicated.
"One of the questions that we are going to continue to press is making sure that the opposition is committed to a democratic Syria, an inclusive Syria, a moderate Syria," he said. "The more engaged we are, the more we'll be in a position to make sure ... that we are encouraging the most moderate, thoughtful elements of the opposition that are committed to inclusion, observance of human rights and working cooperatively with us over the long term."
Richter reported from Washington and McDonnell from Beirut.