MARRAKECH, Morocco – More than 100 countries on Wednesday recognized a new Syrian opposition coalition, opening the way for greater humanitarian assistance to the forces battling Bashar Assad and possibly even military aid, France's foreign minister said.
The formation of the Syrian National Coalition appears to be the step the international community has been waiting for to extend deeper assistance to the opposition, which had been criticized for not being sufficiently organized or representative.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called the "Friends of the Syrian People" conference meeting in Marrakech, Morocco, "extraordinary progress." He noted that the European Union is now renewing its weapons embargo on Syria every three months rather than annually to be more flexible as the situation on the ground changes.
"We want to have the ability to continue or to change our attitude on this point. The fact that the coalition, which is asking for the right to defend itself, is now being recognized by a hundred countries -- yesterday the U.S. and first France -- I think this is a very important point."
The conference comes hours after President Barack Obama declared the new coalition was the "legitimate representative" of Syria's people.
At the conference, Syrian opposition spokesman Walid al-Bunni called for "real support" and not just recognition. The Syrian National Coalition, formed in November during a conference in Doha, Qatar, has been calling for increased international support, including military material.
"We need not only bread to help our people," opposition member Saleem Abdul Aziz al Meslet told The Associated Press. "We need support for our Syrian army. We need to speed up things and get rid of this regime."
Some of that support appeared to be forthcoming, with Saudi Arabia announcing a $100 million aid package at the conference.
Western countries have been reluctant to send arms to Syria. That's not the least because of their experience in Libya, where the West actively backed one side in a civil war in a country that later became awash in militant groups.
There has been a noticeable hardening of the Western rhetoric though as the war in Syria has ground on for nearly two years. With more than 40,000 people killed, according to estimates by rights groups, and as the rebels score new battlefield victories, there are fears that Assad may turn to his chemical weapons arsenal.
"In the United Kingdom, we do not rule out any option to save lives," warned British Foreign Secretary William Hague in his speech at the conference. "We do not know how long the conflict in Syria will last. But uniting the international community around these efforts, helping the national coalition to win the confidence of the Syrian people, planning for a peaceful future for the country and protecting the victims of the conflict on whom that future will rest is surely the right way to end the conflict and stop the appalling loss of life."
John Wilks, the British special representative to the Syrian opposition, said that Wednesday's event was neither a donor conference nor a military aid event. Rather, it was an effort to set up opposition institutions so that they could effectively use future aid 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," he said before the conference began. "They are happy, we are happy,"
In her speech at the conference on the severe humanitarian needs of Syria's people, coalition vice president Suheir Attasi said that the coalition had created the necessary relief structures on the ground to receive aid, as had been requested by the international community.
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.
Fabius, the French minister, said there were differences of opinion among participants over the U.S. move, with a number of Arab countries objecting to the terrorist label and the new Syrian opposition leader pointing out that it was hard to describe as terrorists a group making an important contribution to the fight.
The new president of the coalition, Mouaz Khatib, did however condemn "all forms of extremism" in his conference speech --a veiled reference to the jihadi groups operating in the country. He specifically called for reconciliation with the country's Alawite minority, from which Assad comes, and called on Alawites to fight with the opposition.
"We call on them to accept the extended hand and work together against the violence of the regime," he said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was expected to attend the conference, but cancelled following an illness. She was being represented by William Burns, the deputy secretary of state for the Middle East .
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.