Meeting in the Moroccan city of Marrakech as rebels fought with Syrian troops on the outskirts of Damascus, the “Friends of Syria” group called on President Bashar al-Assad to step aside and warned him against using chemical weapons.
At the same meeting, the leader of Syria’s opposition coalition called on the Alawi minority to launch a campaign of civil disobedience against Assad, an Alawi who faces a mainly Sunni Muslim uprising against his rule.
Hours earlier, President Barack Obama announced that Washington would now recognize the newly formed coalition of opposition groups as Syria’s legitimate representative, joining France, Britain, Turkey and Gulf states.
“Participants acknowledge the National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and the umbrella organization under which the Syrian opposition are gathering,” said a draft declaration of the Marrakech meeting obtained by Reuters.
The gathering brings together many Western and Arab nations opposed to Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for 42 years. But it excludes Russia, China and Iran, which have supported Assad or blocked efforts to tighten international pressure on him.
Participants announced the creation of a relief fund “to support the Syrian people”, calling on states and organizations to make contributions to the fund.
No pledge of arms
While a draft text by the “Friends of Syria” group made no explicit commitment to arm the rebels, a diplomat following the talks said participants agreed on “the legitimate need” of Syrian rebels to defend themselves against the army.
Another diplomat said Western powers did not rule out supplying arms to rebel units in the future, but would want assurances about where the weapons would flow – pointing to several atrocities committed by rebel fighters and the presence of radical Islamists in their ranks.
“No option is ruled out. But there are big issues about the legality of intervening in a civil war. Any support to any group depends on the command control and the discipline on the ground,” a Western diplomat at the Marrakech meeting said.
France said at the talks it was not ready to supply arms.
“For now we have decided not to move on this,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters in Morocco. “We shall see in the coming months.”
Western officials are due to meet commanders of a newly formed rebel military command in Turkey next week.
Syria’s state news agency SANA said Obama’s recognition of the political opposition, which coincided with Washington’s designation of the radical Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra group, part of the rebel force against Assad, as a terrorist organization “proves American hypocrisy.”
The opposition National Coalition leader Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib called on the United States to reconsider its decision.
Fighting is moving closer to Assad’s residence in the center of Damascus, and early on Wednesday government forces fired artillery and rockets at southwestern suburbs of the capital adjacent to the Mezzeh military airport, activists said.
SANA said on Wednesday that “terrorists” detonated two bombs in the Damascus district of Jaramana, killing one person and wounded five, and another two bombs behind the Justice Ministry in Damascus, wounding one person.
The Syrian army is using warplanes and heavy artillery to try to halt further advances by rebels, many of them die-hard Islamists. Opposition leaders say they need heavy weapons to sustain the momentum and change the military equation in a conflict that has killed more than 23,000 people since March 2011.
The fighting has driven hundreds of thousands of Syrians into neighboring countries, and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees said more than half a million were either registered or awaiting registration in the region.
Opposition coalition member Abdelbasset Sida said diplomatic recognition in Marrakech would not be enough. “We need military support. A transitional phase has started, and we need the means to defend the liberated parts of Syria from regime strikes.”