US backs new Syrian opposition ahead of conference

Associated Press
This image made from amateur video released by Ugarit News, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a Syrian rebel firing his weapon in Damascus, Syria, Friday, June 21, 2013. The commander of Syria's rebels confirms they have received new weapons, giving his forces more power in battles against government troops and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Gen. Salim Idris refused to say in an interview with Al-Jazeera TV Friday where the weapons came from. (AP Photo/Ugarit News via AP video)
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This image made from amateur video released by Ugarit News, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a Syrian rebel firing his weapon in Damascus, Syria, Friday, June 21, 2013. The commander of Syria's rebels confirms they have received new weapons, giving his forces more power in battles against government troops and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Gen. Salim Idris refused to say in an interview with Al-Jazeera TV Friday where the weapons came from. (AP Photo/Ugarit News via AP video)

MARRAKECH, Morocco (AP) — A Syrian opposition spokesman called for "real support" and not just recognition on Wednesday, hours after the U.S. declared that the new Syrian opposition coalition was the "legitimate representative" of its country's people.

Speaking as the fourth meeting of the "Friends of the Syrian People" opened in the Moroccan city of Marrakech, Walid al-Bunni called on the more than a hundred delegates from Europe and the Gulf countries to provide something concrete to help in their battle against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.

"Recognition is nice, but we need real support," said Walid al-Bunni, a spokesman for the newly formed Syrian National Coalition as the conference began. "I will be happy after the conference if we have something for the Syrian people."

The U.S. move, announced by President Barack Obama late Tuesday, follows that of France and the U.K.

The Syrian National Coalition, formed in November during a conference in Doha, Qatar, has been calling for increased international support, including military material for opposition forces battling the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria for nearly two years.

The U.S. and its British allies are not, however, expected to approve military aid, in part over fears of al-Qaida linked rebel units operating in the country. There are also no representatives of the Syrian rebel forces at the conference.

John Wilks, the British special representative to the Syrian opposition, explained that Wednesday's event was neither a donor conference nor a military aid event but rather an effort to set up opposition institutions so that they could effectively use future aid in a credible manner to administer the areas they control.

"The key point is that they are setting up institutions and money is coming, so it's a better situation than three months ago — they are happy, we are happy," he said before the conference began.

He said so far Britain had earmarked 50 million pounds ($80 million) of humanitarian aid and 7 million pounds ($11.2 million) non-humanitarian including communications equipment, training and office supplies — but no plans for now for military aid.

"There are big issues concerning legality — intervening in a civil war to overthrow a government is a difficult proposition, to put it mildly," he said.

Obama's announcement follows his administration's blacklisting of a militant Syrian rebel group with links to al-Qaida. That step is aimed at blunting the influence of extremists amid fears that the regime may use or lose control of its stockpile of chemical weapons.

The U.S. had been leading international efforts to prod the fractured Syrian opposition into coalescing around a leadership that would represent all of the country's factions and religions. Yet it had held back from granting recognition to the group until it demonstrated that it could organize itself in credible fashion.

In particular, Washington had wanted to see the group set up smaller committees that could deal with specific immediate and short-term issues, such as governing parts of Syria under their control and putting in place institutions to address the needs of people once Assad is ousted. Some of those committees could form the basis of a transitional government.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was expected to attend the conference, but cancelled following an illness and will be represented by Deputy Secretary of State for the Middle East, William Burns.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday the recognition contradicted earlier international agreements that foresee the "commencement of an all-Syria dialogue" that would include all sides of the conflict, in which more than 40,000 people have died so far.

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