CAIRO — The leader of Syria's new opposition coalition urged European states on Tuesday to recognize it as the legitimate government, enabling it to buy the weapons it needs to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
Britain and France appeared to set further conditions, notably that it first rally support inside the country, before they grant full recognition to the Syrian National Coalition. And, like the United States, Europeans are still reluctant to arm rebel forces which include anti-Western Islamist militants.
Western caution, and an Arab League endorsement that stopped short of full recognition, indicate that the coalition forged with such difficulty in Qatar two days ago may yet find it hard to win wholehearted support, even from its allies.
Speaking to Reuters by telephone as Arab and European ministers met to discuss Syria at the Arab League in Cairo, Mouaz al-Khatib, the Damascus preacher elected unopposed on Sunday to lead the new group, asked for diplomatic backing.
"I request European states to grant political recognition to the coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and to give it financial support," he said.
"When we get political recognition, this will allow the coalition to act as a government and hence acquire weapons and this will solve our problems," al-Khatib added.
France's defense minister and Britain's foreign minister both said that forming the new group under al-Khatib, a moderate noted for his embrace of Syria's religious and ethnic minorities, was an important milestone but not sufficient for full recognition as a government-in-waiting.
So far, concerted action on Syria has been thwarted by divisions within the opposition, as well as by big power rivalries and a regional divide between Sunni Muslim foes of Assad and his Shiite allies in Iran and Lebanon.
Russia and China, which have lent Assad diplomatic support since the uprising erupted in March last year, have shown no sign of warming towards his Western- and Arab-backed opponents.
Lebanese analyst Nadim Shehadi said Western conditions were just as great an obstacle to resolving the Syria crisis.
Where once the United States sought to convince Iraqis and Afghans that U.S. military intervention was for their own good, now Syrians seeking democracy and freedom were trying to persuade a reluctant Washington to act, he said.
"The U.S. is playing hard to get," he said. "It's like you have to pass a test to show you are united, have leadership, are not Islamist jihadists . . . and the U.S. is still hesitant as though you have to 'deserve' all that before they intervene."
Cajoled by Qatar and the United States, the ineffectual Syrian National Council, previously the main opposition body based abroad, agreed to join a wider coalition on Sunday.
But French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the new body still needed to unite armed rebel factions within Syria under its umbrella to earn full recognition.
"What happened in Doha is a step forward," he told reporters in Paris. "It is still not sufficient to constitute a provisional government that can be recognized internationally."
Britain's foreign minister, William Hague, also said the coalition must show it had support within Syria before London would acknowledge it as the rightful government.
"If they have this, yes, we will then recognize them as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people," he told reporters at the Arab-European meeting in Cairo.
The opposition had hoped its new-found unity would clear the way for outside powers to arm the rebels, but Western nations fear such weapons could reach the hands of Islamist militants.
Western concern has also been heightened by documented reports of atrocities by ill-disciplined insurgents.
"Syria's newly created opposition front should send a clear message to opposition fighters that they must adhere to the laws of war and human rights law, and that violators will be held accountable," New York-based Human Rights Watch said.
The French defenc\se minister called for "a unification of military action to avoid haphazard military operations" and also urged rebels to rein in radical Islamist "Salafist elements."
Assad, whose family have ruled Syria for 42 years, has vowed to fight to the death in a conflict that has already killed an estimated 38,000 people and risks sucking in other countries.
His warplanes again struck homes in rebel-held Ras al-Ain. Civilians fled over the border dividing it from the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar and thick plumes of smoke billowed upwards.
Syrian jets and artillery hit the town of Albu Kamal on the frontier with Iraq, where rebels have seized some areas, according to the mayor of the Iraqi border town of Qaim.
Tension also remained high on the Golan Heights, where Israeli gunners have retaliated against stray Syrian mortar fire landing on the occupied plateau in the previous two days.
Twenty months of conflict have created a vast humanitarian crisis, with more than 408,000 Syrians fleeing to neighboring countries and up to four million expected to need aid by early next year, according to the United Nations.
Fighting has also displaced 2.5 million civilians inside Syria, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent estimates.
"If anything, they believe it could be more; this is a very conservative estimate," Melissa Fleming, chief spokeswoman of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said in Geneva.
"So people are moving, really on the run, hiding," she told a news briefing. "They are difficult to count and access."
In Cairo, Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby urged other opposition factions to join what is formally known as the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces.
But although six Gulf Arab nations recognized the coalition as Syria's only legitimate representative on Monday, Iraq, Algeria, and Lebanon prevented the League from following suit.
Iraq and Lebanon, with influential Shiite populations, have generally maintained better relations with Iran and with Assad, whose minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
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