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Britain hopes to back new Syrian rebel group -- but not yet

November 16, 2012|By Henry Chu
  • British Foreign Secretary William Hague, left, greets President Mouaz Khatib of the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces in London.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, left, greets President Mouaz… (British Foreign and Commonwealth…)

LONDON – Britain said Friday that it wants to grant diplomatic recognition to Syria’s fledgling opposition coalition sooner rather than later, a move that would bolster the political legitimacy of rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad.

Earlier this week, France became the first Western power to recognize the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, an umbrella organization formed last weekend to unite the various factions ranged against Assad’s government. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said his country would follow suit once it had, in essence, vetted the group, its membership and its aims.

“We would like to be able at an early stage to recognize them as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” Hague told reporters after talks Friday with the coalition’s top leaders here in the British capital.

“I wanted to meet them myself before the United Kingdom takes that step,” Hague said. “We need their assurances about being inclusive of all communities. We need to see that they have genuine support within Syria.”

He called the new organization an “encouraging development” in the uprising against Assad, which has been plagued by squabbling among various rebel groups.

But mindful of previous failed attempts at unity and of concerns over the possible presence of Islamic extremists in the coalition, Hague said more discussions are necessary before Britain throws its full diplomatic weight behind the group.

France’s announcement Tuesday that it was recognizing the coalition echoed the leading role it took vis-à-vis the rebels who last year toppled Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi and formed a new government. Paris was the first to grant formal recognition to Libya's Transitional National Council, a move that was eventually adopted by other Western countries and that helped pave the way for their intervention, including the establishment of a “no-fly” zone over Libya.

It is not likely that Syria will follow the same pattern, at least not immediately. Although tens of thousands of people have died in the conflict, the West remains leery of direct involvement in the uprising for fear of destabilizing the region or precipitating a wider war beyond Syria’s borders.

Hague gave no indication that Britain or the rest of Europe was ready to supply Syria’s rebels with the heavy weapons they have requested.

“We don’t rule out any option on Syria, but we are conscious that this ultimately needs, whatever happens, a diplomatic and political solution,” Hague said. “A military victory of one side over the other would be a long, expensive process in terms of human life. And so our top priority remains to achieve a diplomatic and political solution.”

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