Rebel fighters took up positions Monday close to a government military base near Azaz. The conflict has killed more than 40,000 people.

Manu Brabo, Associated Press

U.S. expected to recognize Syrian opposition group

  • Article by: ANNE GEARANand KAREN DeYOUNG
  • Washington Post
  • December 10, 2012 - 10:17 PM

WASHINGTON - The Obama administration is taking a calculated risk that embracing chosen leaders of Syria's fragmented rebels will speed the fall of President Bashar Assad, moving this week to recognize a slate of opposition figures whose pledges of democracy Washington can do little to enforce.

The administration is expected to announce the recognition of a relatively new Syrian opposition group Wednesday when U.S., European and Arab diplomats meet with its leaders in Morocco.

The action is part of fast-moving diplomacy to try to guard against chaos and collapse in Syria if rebel forces succeed in ousting or killing Assad. International efforts to support moderates as successors to Assad have taken on new urgency as rebels gain ground militarily.

In a further attempt to bolster moderates and marginalize extremists in the opposition, the State Department designated a leading Syrian militant group as a terrorist organization. The designation identifies Jabhat Al-Nusra as a global terrorist organization and an affiliate of the group Al-Qaida in Iraq.

The two steps are aimed at building a broader and more moderate coalition for a post-Assad Syria. But the Obama administration remains opposed to U.S. military intervention in Syria or providing arms directly to the rebels.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland would not give details Monday about what diplomatic steps will be taken in Marrakesh, Morocco. But department officials said privately that the United States will join a growing lineup of countries throwing their support behind the opposition group.

France, Britain, Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council have formally recognized the Syrian opposition. European Union foreign ministers met Monday with the head of the Syrian opposition coalition, Ahmed Mouaz Al-Khatib, in Brussels.

The recognition of the Syrian National Coalition is likely to stop short of naming the group as the legitimate ruler of Syria. That would theoretically give the group standing at the United Nations or elsewhere to ask for international military intervention. Instead, the State Department is likely to call the group the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

The genesis of the Syrian National Coalition was a proposal by prominent Syrian dissident Riad Seif to supplant a largely expatriate group, the Syrian National Council.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was to attend the Morocco meeting, but her office said an illness has forced her to cancel the trip. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns will represent the administration.

Notice of the new terrorist designation for Jabhat Al-Nusra was published Monday in the Federal Register. The move prohibits Americans from any financial dealings with the group and freezes any of its assets under U.S. control.

Administration officials say that Jabhat consists largely of Syrian fighters who joined Al-Qaida in Iraq years ago and have returned to their own country. Al-Qaida in Iraq was one of the leading Sunni insurgent groups that attacked U.S. troops there.

The administration singled out Jabhat despite knowing that such a move partly bolsters Assad's assertion that insurgents fighting his rule are "terrorists."

The U.S. action also risks alienating Syrian rebels who are unaffiliated with Al-Qaida but see the well-organized Jabhat as an important ally in defeating Assad.

But U.S. officials say that blacklisting Jabhat could help clear the way for wider international support for more-moderate rebels.

Nuland would not confirm the blacklisting Monday, but she said the United States is concerned that Jabhat "is little more than a front for al-Qaida in Iraq."

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