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European Union moves closer to recognizing Syria opposition

Georges Gobet / AFP - Getty Images

Luxembourg Foreign Affairs minister Jean Asselborn, left to right, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton and Polish Foreign Affairs minister Radoslaw Sikorski talk prior to a Foreign Affairs Council at the EU Headquarters in Brussels on Dec. 10, 2012.

EU foreign ministers, meeting the leader of the Syrian opposition on Monday, moved toward full recognition of a new coalition ahead of a diplomatic gathering aimed at bolstering aid for rebels fighting President Bashar Assad.

In part because of concerns about the presence of radical Islamists among the rebels, the European Union did not offer full recognition to the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), as Britain and France have. The bloc also has called on the grouping to become more inclusive.

But the EU offered to "continue engaging with and to support the Coalition" as it worked towards creating "a credible alternative to the current regime" of President Assad.

"It is the right time to upgrade the SNC today," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told reporters in Brussels, where foreign ministers had gathered.

"We think it will be an important means to promote the process of erosion in the regime of Assad."

Recent steps toward full recognition show how the formation of a united Syrian opposition has galvanized overseas support for the rebels.

Rebels have captured a Syrian army base outside Aleppo, tightening the oppositions grip in some areas. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

View from northern Syria: Rebels control countryside, open roads

Mouaz Alkhatib, a popular Damascene preacher, was in Brussels ahead of the Friends of Syria meeting scheduled for Wednesday in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to announce Washington's backing for the new Syrian coalition at that meeting.


Alkhatib said he expected to get a decision on Wednesday from the EU over whether it would recognize the coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

 

"This is under discussion because the European countries each have their own point of view and they are debating the issue," he told reporters after he left midway through the ministers' meeting. "They will give the final answer in Marrakesh."

The EU - whose leaders on Monday received the Nobel Peace Prize for its promotion of stability and democracy - reminded Alkhatib of his responsibilities.

"The EU encourages the Coalition ... to remain committed to the respect of the principles of human rights, inclusivity [sic], democracy and engaging with all opposition groups and all sections of Syrian civil society," the ministers said in a statement.

Alkhatib gave them "some very clear assurances about the inclusivity of the National Coalition," according to British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

These assurances included the coalition's desire to represent all people living in Syria, and included references to Kurds and Christians living there, he said.

"I've urged him to once again make very clear the commitment of the national coalition to all the things the Assad regime is not committed to," Hague said, adding that this meant commitments "to human rights, to international humanitarian law, to democracy and freedom for the people of Syria".

Reviewing sanctions
Pushed by Britain, the EU decided at the end of November to review sanctions on Syria every three months instead of every year to make it easier to equip the rebels in the future.

The sanctions include an embargo on the supply of arms to the country, imposed to prevent the flow of weapons to Assad's forces. The new, shorter review period will allow the EU to look at amendments to the embargo to possibly allow the supply of non-lethal equipment to the Syrian rebels.

Ministers discussed possible supplies on Monday, but Greece said it would oppose any such move, said one EU diplomat.

The EU has said in the past that it would support taking action against war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria to the International Criminal Court. However, ministers decided on Monday that such a move could complicate their work with the new opposition for now, the diplomat said.

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