x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

France backs new Syrian opposition coalition but UK more cautious

Syria's new opposition body seeks Arab and European backing and urges world powers to arm rebels with 'specialised weapons' to help end the conflict.

Britain's foreign secretary William Hague (left) attends the joint Arab League-European foreign ministers' meeting on Syria, at the Arab League’s Cairo headquarters.
Britain's foreign secretary William Hague (left) attends the joint Arab League-European foreign ministers' meeting on Syria, at the Arab League’s Cairo headquarters.

CAIRO // France recognised the newly formed Syrian opposition bloc that yesterday urged European and Arab powers to back it in its fight against the Assad regime.

Syria's new opposition leader, a soft-spoken imam backed by the United States and the Arabian Gulf states, has launched his quest for international recognition of a government-in-waiting to topple president Bashar Al Assad.

Moaz Al Khatib urged world powers yesterday to arm rebels with "specialised weapons" as they desperately needed arms to "cut short the suffering of the Syrians and their bloodshed.

He said: "Many groups have joined. Some have reservations, and we are in touch with everyone. The vast majority has joined. It is the strongest coalition and represents Syria internally." he said.

His new Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces received the endorsement of the six Sunni Muslim-ruled kingdoms of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as the "legitimate representative of the Syrian people".

Yesterday, the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said other world powers should recognise the new Syrian opposition bloc.

"Our hope is that the different countries recognise the Syrian national coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people ... France's role is to make that hope possible," Mr Fabius said in Cairo.

European Union foreign ministers meeting in Egypt's capital welcomed the bloc and urged it to bring in more regime dissenters.

"The opposition has taken a huge step forward," said Mr Fabius, who earlier met Mr Al Khatib and George Sabra, the head of the Syrian National Council, the powerful opposition group that finally agreed to join the wider, more representative bloc.

The British foreign secretary, William Hague, welcomed the latest effort by the opposition to form a united front, but said more needed to be done before Britain formally recognised it. "It is a very important milestone," Mr Hague said. "We want the Syrian opposition to be inclusive ... and to have support inside Syria and if they have this, yes, we will then recognise them as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people."

Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, will meet foreign ministers of the Arabian Gulf in Riyadh today to discuss their differences on the Syrian conflict.

The GCC aims to "put an end to the suffering of the Syrian people through rapid political transition and a halt to the bloodshed", said the group's chief, Abdel Latif Al Zayani.

The meeting follows the Arabian Gulf states' recognition of the Syrian National Coalition.

In contrast, Russia on Monday urged the new grouping to spurn foreign interference and drop its rejection of a negotiated solution.

Iran will bring parties to the Syrian conflict to Tehran next week to participate in a "national dialogue", said the Iranian deputy foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, yesterday.

On the ground, fierce battles and army shelling in Damascus province killed at least 41 people yesterday, 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.

Syrian army tanks shelled 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 watchdog also reported fresh bombings by warplanes of Ras Al Ain, in northeastern Syria.

"As soon as we heard the jets, we knew they would bomb. It hit another house just 100 metres away," Mohammad Kahan, 49, a Kurd who fled with nine members of his family, said of Monday's bombardment.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent estimates that at least 2.5 million people have been internally displaced.

"The figure they [the Syrian Arab Red Crescent] are using is 2.5 million. If anything, they believe it could be more," said Melissa Fleming, chief spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Ms Fleming said conditions on the ground had made it difficult to establish precise figures.

"Some people have been internally displaced several times, people are on the run, hiding," she said, adding that around "95 per cent" of internally displaced people in the country had sought shelter with families.

* Agence France-Presse and Reuters