BEIRUT — France on Tuesday became the first Western country to formally recognize Syria’s newly formed opposition coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
The U.S. also recognized the leadership body announced in Qatar Sunday as a legitimate representative, but stopped short of describing it as the “sole” one, saying the group must first demonstrate its ability to represent Syrians inside the country.
The two announcements could start a trend toward world recognition of the rebels as the legitimate government of Syria, undercutting whatever legitimacy the regime of President Bashar Assad still has after 20 months of a bloody civil war.
“We look forward to supporting the national coalition as it charts a course for the end of Assad’s bloody rule, and marks the start, we believe, of a peaceful just and democratic future for the people of Syria,” said U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner in Washington.
Under intense international pressure to form an opposition that includes representatives from the country’s disparate factions fighting to topple President Bashar Assad, the anti-government groups struck a deal Sunday in Doha, Qatar, to form a coalition headed by former Muslim preacher Mouaz al-Khatib.
The coalition includes representatives from the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, which was harshly criticized by many, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, for being cut off from rebels fighting the war on the ground and for failing to forge a cohesive and more representative leadership.
The new group is lobbying the international community for more powerful weapons to break the stalemate with the regime. U.S. and French recognition is seen as a welcome boost, but the opposition still has a long way to go to convince the international community the weapons will not fall into the wrong hands.
Islamic extremists have been taking a more public role in the fighting in Syria, and there is evidence of al-Qaida involvement as well.
“We now have a structure in place that can prepare for a political transition, 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, both non-lethal and humanitarian,” Toner told reporters in Washington.
The French decision was announced by President Francois Hollande, who used his first news conference since taking office six months ago to formally recognize the new group.
“I announce here that France recognizes the National Syrian Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people and, therefore, as the future provisional government of democratic Syria,” Hollande said.
France, which has played a leading role in efforts to force Assad from power, was also the first to recognize the Syrian National Council. Hollande made no mention of that grouping on Tuesday.
France has acknowledged providing communications and other non-lethal equipment to Syrian rebels. It has been a leader in pressing for a tough U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria, but it has been blocked by Russia and China.
The French position appeared to break with the overall European position.
British Foreign Minister William Hague, speaking at the Arab League in Cairo Tuesday, said the opposition coalition must gain support from within Syria.
“That is a very crucial consideration, and if they do these things, well then, yes, we would then be able to recognize them as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people,” he said.
A joint statement by the Arab League and the European Union said the two sides welcome the agreement reached in Doha by the Syrian opposition, which is seen as an “important step” in forming a widely representative opposition group.
Violence continued across Syria Tuesday, particularly in the country’s northeastern corner near the border with Turkey.
Syrian activists and a Turkish official said Syria’s air force bombed a rebel-held region near the border for a second day Tuesday, killing at least one person and wounding three others.
The aerial attack raised the two-day death toll in the region to an estimated 31 people. Nearly 10,000 Syrians have fled into Turkey since Friday, seeking safety from shelling and bombing.
An Associated Press journalist saw air strikes around the Syrian town of Ras al-Ayn, just across the border from the southeastern Turkish town of Ceylanpinar. Plumes of smoke rose into the sky, and Turkish ambulances rushed to the border to ferry wounded Syrians to Turkish hospitals.
An official from the Ceylanpinar mayor’s office reported four airstrikes on Tuesday. It was not clear whether one or several planes were involved. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
The official said one of the four wounded Syrians brought into Turkey for medical treatment Tuesday had died. He said about 20 people were killed during Monday’s air raid in Ras al-Ayn and 10 others from the town died Monday in Turkey of their wounds.
Amateur videos posted online by activists showed people frantically fleeing Ras al-Ayn with their belongings. In one video, a child screamed uncontrollably as her father tried to soothe her. The videos appeared consistent with AP reporting from the area.
The violence in Syria has killed more than 36,000 people since an uprising against Assad’s regime began in March 2011. Hundreds of thousands have fled into neighboring Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.
Syrian rebels wrested control of Ras al-Ayn from the Assad regime forces last week. The town is in the predominantly Kurdish oil-producing northeastern province of al-Hasaka.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, speaking to journalists in Rome late Monday, said Turkey formally protested the bombings close to its border to the Syrian government, saying the attacks were endangering Turkey’s security. He said Turkey also reported the incident to NATO allies and to the U.N. Security Council.
The Syrian jet did not infringe Turkey’s airspace, he said, adding that Turkey would have responded if it had.
The U.N. refugee agency said the turmoil has forced it to withdraw five of its 12 staff from Syria’s al-Hasaka province, where Ras al-Ayn is located, and led to aid losses in Damascus and Aleppo.
In the Damascus suburb of Ein el-Feiha, a popular area with restaurants and shops, a car bomb exploded at afternoon rush hour, causing a large number casualties, according to activists and state-run news agency SANA said.
A Syrian Arab Red Crescent warehouse in Aleppo was apparently shelled and 13,000 blankets burned, U.N. refugee spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said Tuesday in Geneva.
She said “recent deliveries have been very difficult,” particularly in Damascus, where aid operations were disrupted for two days and a truck carrying 600 blankets was hijacked outside the city.