Obama Adds Legitimacy To Syrian Rebel Group

President Obama said the U.S. will recognize a newly formed Syrian opposition group as the country's legitimate representative. That will allow the group to channel international aid money into Syria as well as draw-up plans for a transitional government if the regime of Syrian President Assad falls.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's turn now to the conflict in Syria and a new move by the United States. Last night President Obama said the U.S. will recognize a newly formed Syrian opposition group as Syria's legitimate representative. Now, this will allow the group to channel international aid money into Syria and also draw plans for a transitional government if the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad does fall. We reached NPR's Kelly McEvers in Marrakesh, Morocco, where this new opposition group is meeting with international donors. Kelly, good morning.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So how big a turning point is this, that the United States is now recognizing this new opposition group?

MCEVERS: This is a move that was expected, but what it does is it sends a message to the Syrians, I think, that the U.S. is really serious about bringing down Assad and planning for the future of the country. What it also does - I mean I think the U.S. is trying to kind of have a policy now of recognizing the good guys and shunning the bad guys in this fight.

This recognition also came with the designation of one group that's fighting inside Syria as a terrorist organization. So that's what's on the surface here in Morocco, these sort of public recognitions of the good guys. As you know, there's always kind of other things going on behind the scenes. Here the talk is about how Russia might have slightly changed its position in recent days on what to do in Syria and is now probably more willing to push for some kind of transition in Syria.

What people are talking about here is what that transition would look like, how it would happen. For example, would this new opposition be willing to, you know, negotiate with some members of Assad's regime? And you know, who would be in the so-called shadow government that would take the regime's place?

GREENE: OK. So we're talking about diplomacy. We're talking about sending messages. We're talking about political transitions. But does any of this change the military situation on the ground?

MCEVERS: So far, no. There has been no formal shift in the stance of the U.S. or its allies on providing any more military support for the Syrians fighting on the ground. And I think what you hear from rebel commanders and fighters is, you know, that military position has to change in order for there to be a transition.

It's not just - it's not as if, if the world powers agree on how Assad should leave power he would just sort of agree to that plan, unless he's pressured militarily. One thing we have learned. We just actually returned from Jordan, which is actually America's strongest ally in Syria's neighborhood, and we were able to confirm that Syrian rebels are being trained in the use of sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles.

These are the kind of missiles that they say could turn the tide against Assad militarily. We know Assad's army has been using helicopter gunships and warplanes to bomb areas that are known to house rebel fighters. We're told that up to, you know, 200 Syrian rebels have been trained so far in recent months in these kinds of weapons.

We're told that the rebels are handpicked, secretly brought out of Syria, and we're told the emphasis is on, you know, secular, sort of more professional military defectors as opposed to Islamist militants. You know, again, with this training it seems to be identify and recognize the good guys and shun the bad guys.

GREENE: OK. And if this is all happening in Jordan, a U.S. ally, as you said, is the United States directly involved in any of this training?

MCEVERS: Not directly. Our sources say, you know, that the U.S. has helped organize the training. It's likely that the actual trainers are contractors. The people who attended some of the training says the trainers, you know, don't wear military uniforms, that they speak different dialects of Arabic. So they're probably, you know, local hires.

What we do know is that uniformed U.S. military officials have been meeting with defected officers from the Syrian army. These Syrian officers tell us there's a lot of planning going on. You know, you have to keep in mind that the Jordan-Syrian border is very close to Syrian's capital, Damascus. But what they say is there just isn't the firepower to back up these plans.

There's a lot of talking, a lot of maps, but what they need are weapons, logistics, real help in the fight.

GREENE: And I suppose that the message from the rebels to the United States and its allies is still, what are you waiting for? When is that all coming?

MCEVERS: Exactly. I mean, again, for any sort of political transition to happen there needs to be more military pressure on the ground. That's what they're saying. Rebels have made gains in recent weeks. They've captured bases. They've captured lots of weapons. They've launched an offensive in Damascus. But Assad's army is still very strong. So that leaves a lot of the people in the opposition both politically and militarily saying it's time to step up the fight now.

GREENE: That's NPR's Kelly McEvers reporting for us from Morocco. Kelly, thanks.

MCEVERS: You're welcome.

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