The United States said Tuesday the newly formed opposition Syrian National Coalition was “a legitimate representative” of the Syrian people, but stopped short of recognizing it as a government-in-exile.
“We now have a structure in place that can prepare for a political transition, but… we’re looking for it to still establish the types of technical committees that will allow us to make sure our assistance gets to the right places,” U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said.
The move, which came after talks in Doha, came after Washington pushed the Syrian National Council to broaden its membership, saying it was not representative of all the groups fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
But Toner said the US policy of providing only non-lethal support and humanitarian aid to the Syrian rebels remained unchanged.
Earlier Tuesday, France went farther – recognizing the coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people, becoming the first Western country to do so.
“I announce that France recognizes the Syrian National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people and thus as the future provisional government of a democratic Syria, allowing an end to the Bashar al-Assad regime,” President Francois Hollande told a press conference.
Meanwhile, the coalition’s chief called on world powers to arm Assad’s foes, as Arab and EU leaders urged his coalition to seek broader support inside the war-torn country.
The French move came 24 hours after the coalition was recognized by the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait.
Britain has said it wants to see more evidence that the opposition grouping has strong support inside Syria before formally recognizing it as effectively a government in exile.
Damascus ally Moscow has urged the opposition to drop its refusal to negotiate with the Assad regime.
The diverse forces involved in the coalition agreed on Sunday to unify their fighting forces under a supreme military council and set up a national judicial commission for rebel-held areas in Syria.
They plan to form a provisional government once the coalition has been widely recognized internationally.
Earlier, National Coalition leader Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib called in Cairo for the rebels to be provided with “specialized weapons” as they desperately needed arms to “cut short the suffering of the Syrians and their bloodshed.”
Mr. Hollande said the question of arming the rebels, hitherto opposed by Paris, would have to be reviewed.
“This question will have to be necessarily reviewed not only in France but in all countries which will recognize this government,” he said.
EU foreign ministers meeting in Cairo welcomed the bloc and urged it to bring in more regime dissenters, with Khatib responding that “it is the strongest coalition and represents Syria internally.”
The 22-member Arab League has stopped short of granting the bloc full recognition, stating only that it saw the alliance as “the legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition.”
Iran, meanwhile, said it will bring parties to the Syrian conflict to Tehran on Sunday to participate in a “national dialogue.”
On the ground, fierce battles and army shelling in Damascus province on Tuesday killed more than 40 people, most of them civilians, while warplanes again bombed Ras al-Ain, a strategic town on the Turkish border, a watchdog said.
The fighting in the Eastern Ghuta area east of Damascus came after rebels launched an attack on public buildings in the area, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The army used tanks to shell several towns east of Damascus, including Harasta, Zabadani and Irbin, killing at least seven civilians including an unknown number of women and children, the Observatory said.
The Syrian Observatory also reported fresh air raids on Ras al-Ain, in northeastern Syria on the border with Turkey, and said 1,000 government troops had been sent to the town.
The air strikes have sent a new wave of civilians pouring into Turkey, adding to the 9,000 refugees who fled late last week when rebels overran the town.
In other violence, the army shelled rebel positions in the southern province of Daraa, in the central province of Homs, in Idlib in the northwest and in the northern city of Aleppo, said the Observatory.
At least 115 people were killed on Tuesday across Syria – 50 civilians, 33 rebels and 32 soldiers – said the Observatory, which relies for its information on a network of activists, lawyers and medics.
The watchdog has given an overall death toll of more than 37,000 since the revolt broke out in March 2011.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent, meanwhile, estimates that at least 2.5 million people have been internally displaced by the conflict, the United Nations said on Tuesday.