WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama proclaimed Syria’s newly reframed opposition as the “legitimate” representative of the nation’s people Tuesday, in the most significant U.S. intervention in a brutal civil war.
As Washington cranked up pressure on beleaguered President Bashar Assad, the Obama administration also blacklisted the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, which U.S. officials fear is seeking to hijack the revolution, as a terrorist group.
It was another day of carnage inside Syria, meanwhile, as scores of civilians from Assad’s minority sect were reported killed in what appeared to be the largest-scale revenge attacks yet against Alawites.
The United States has edged slowly toward recognizing the opposition Syrian Opposition Council, and its move follows similar action by France, Britain, Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council regional grouping.
The process was slowed by concerns that the coalition, recently reconstituted under U.S. pressure, did not represent all of Syrian society, had links to extremists and did not fully subscribe to democratic principles.
“We have made a decision that the Syrian opposition coalition is now inclusive enough, is reflective and representative enough of the Syrian population, that we consider them the legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” Obama told ABC News.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had been expected to make the announcement at a Friends of the Syrian People meeting in Morocco on Wednesday but could not travel owing to illness.
Washington has so far only provided humanitarian, nonlethal aid to the rebels, officially declining to send arms, a position White House spokesman Carney reiterated Tuesday.
The U.S. administration made clear that it was differentiating between the Council and al-Nusra, which it sees as having extreme tendencies.
“There is a small element of those that oppose the Assad regime, that in fact are affiliated with al-Qaida in Iraq and we have designated them, Al-Nusra, as a terrorist organization,” Obama said in the interview.
Al-Nusra has claimed responsibility for recent suicide bombings that killed scores of people, and said it hopes to replace the Assad family’s hold on power with a strict Islamic state.
The strike on Alawites came in bomb attacks in the village of Aqrab in the central province of Hama and killed or wounded at least 125 civilians, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“We cannot know whether the rebels were behind this attack, but if they were, this would be the largest-scale revenge attack against Alawites,” members of a Shiite sect in Sunni-majority Syria, said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.
Aqrab is near Houla, a majority-Sunni Muslim village where 108 people, including 49 children and 34 women, were massacred on May 25 in what was widely blamed on proregime militias despite denials from Damascus.
International military chiefs have met in London to discuss the Syria conflict, a diplomatic source said after a media report that they discussed plans to train rebels and give air and naval support.
A British diplomatic source confirmed that the military leaders had held talks, but played down the idea that they discussed military intervention against the Assad regime.
“As far as I know they didn’t explore options in any detail, certainly they didn’t explore options for military intervention,” the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
Inside Syria, and apart from the Aqrab attack, at least 68 people were killed Tuesday, the Observatory said. With the death toll from Syria’s agony now topping 42,000, according to Observatory figures.