Middle East

Syria: France backs anti-Assad coalition

President Francois Hollande, news conference 13/11/12
Image caption Mr Hollande said France would consider arming the coalition

France has become the first Western power to recognise Syria's opposition coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

The move was announced by President Francois Hollande at a televised news conference in Paris.

Syrian opposition groups struck a deal in the Qatari capital Doha on Sunday to form a broad coalition to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

The US and Britain have both signalled support for the coalition.

But they stopped short of recognising it as a government-in-exile.

Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states have declared the coalition to be the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Opposition and human rights activists estimate that more than 36,000 people have been killed since the uprising against President Assad's rule began in March 2011.

More than 408,000 Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries, and more are fleeing every day, according to the United Nations.

Mr Hollande told reporters: "I announce today that France recognises the Syrian National Coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people and as the future government of a democratic Syria, allowing it to bring an end to Bashar al-Assad's regime."

BBC Arab affairs analyst Sebastian Usher says Mr Hollande's announcement is a clear sign that the West is now pinning its hopes on the Syrian opposition finally being able to offer a united and effective alternative to President Assad.

The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces has been calling on European nations to recognise it as the country's transitional government, enabling it to buy weapons to assist its attempts to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

Mr Hollande said France would look at the question of arming the coalition, but that it would not support doing so "as long as it wasn't clear where these weapons went".

"With the coalition, as soon as it is a legitimate government of Syria, this question will be looked at by France, but also by all countries that recognise this government," he said.

Lukewarm support

In Washington, state department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said the US regarded the National Coalition as "a legitimate representative" of the Syrian people.

Image caption The head of the coalition, Mouaz Alkhatib, has called for diplomatic support

"We now have a structure in place that can prepare for a political transition," he told reporters.

"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."

Earlier, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague described the coalition's formation as a milestone, but said it still had to prove itself.

"We want to see that they have support inside Syria," he said. "That is a very crucial consideration.

"If they do all these things, yes, we will be able to recognise them as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people."

His comments came after the head of the coalition, Mouaz Alkhatib, called for diplomatic support as Arab and European ministers met in Cairo.

"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 in an interview with Reuters news agency.

"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."