'Friends Of Syria' Recognize New Opposition Coalition

The U.S. now recognizes the newly formed National Syrian Coalition. The announcement came at a meeting of the so-called Friends of Syria group in the Moroccan city of Marakesh.

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We begin this hour with big developments in Syria's civil war. There's been a significant escalation of the violence, according to U.S. officials. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fired long-range Scud missiles at rebel targets in the north of the country.

Meantime, representatives from more than 100 countries gathered in Morocco. They were there to recognize a new opposition coalition as the only legitimate voice of the Syrian people. NPR's Kelly McEvers was covering in Marrakech.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: The head of the new opposition group is a man named Moaz al-Khatib. He's a former imam at the revered Umayyad Mosque in Syria's capital, Damascus, who's known as a moderate.

MOAZ AL-KHATIB: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Khatib's speech was dramatic. Sounding more like a preacher than a politician, he called on the international community to do more than just recognize this group. He also asked the U.S. to reconsider designating the Islamist militant group Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization. That group has been fighting alongside the rebels in Syria to bring down Assad's regime.

AL-KHATIB: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: We differ with some groups and their ideas and vision, Khatib said, but it is not a disgrace to liberate this country in the name of religion. It was a message clearly aimed at Syrian activists and fighters who've been outraged by the U.S. move to designate the group as terrorists. When the world didn't come to their aid, they argue, these Islamist fighters did.

Analysts here in the region say the U.S. decision was more about its own politics than the situation on the ground in Syria. They say after Islamist fighters killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, the U.S. wants to stress that it's not working with terrorists in Syria.

But terrorism analysts say the designation could backfire. Aaron Zelin is a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy who monitors jihadi websites. We reached him at his office. He says the designation could rally more support behind Jabhat al-Nusra, both inside Syria and among potential fighters around the region.

AARON ZELIN: This sort of gives an even further stamp of approval as them being a legitimate fighting force against the American way in the region.

MCEVERS: Zelin says it would have been better to wait until after Assad's regime falls to designate the group. That way, the rebels and the Islamists will no longer have the same goal, and it will be easier to isolate the Islamists.

How the fall of the regime might happen was, of course, all the talk here in Marrakech. Many referred to an effort by the U.N. special envoy to start a political transition in Syria. But the major powers still disagree on how that transition should take place.

The U.S. and its allies say it should happen without Assad, but Russia, China and Iran disagree. British Foreign Secretary William Hague praised the new Syrian opposition coalition in his opening speech.

WILLIAM HAGUE: Some countries have resisted the idea of a transition because they have seen no alternative to Assad's leadership. Well, now the world can see that there is an alternative, and I urge all countries, including Russia and China, to work with us to end the conflict.

MCEVERS: Many were expecting the coalition to announce a new shadow government here in Marrakech that could serve in the case that Assad falls. The coalition has been working for days to come up with a roster. But members said they're worried about the safety of such people, especially if this shadow government were to set up shop inside Syria, where rebels do control territory, but the regime's fighter jets still control the skies.

Western diplomats here said there's no rush for the coalition to form a transitional government. But other delegates here said there's no time to waste. Here's Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

DR. AHMET DAVUTOGLU: Time is of essence. What we need is now tangible action, not only initiatives or new efforts, but tangible actions to stop this operation and pains of the Syrian people.

MCEVERS: With at least 3 million Syrians displaced from their homes and hundreds of people dying every day, he said, the time to act is now. Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Marrakech.

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