French President Francois Hollande and the new Syrian opposition leader announced plans Saturday to install an ambassador to represent Syria in France.
The surprise move came after talks at France’s presidential palace between Hollande and Moaz al-Khatib, head of the newly formed Syrian opposition coalition. France recognized the coalition days after it was formed on Sunday - and is so far the only Western country to do so.
Hollande also confirmed that French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who was at Saturday's talk, will raise the issue of lifting the EU arms embargo against Syria at a meeting Monday in Brussels among European Union foreign ministers.
Fabius has suggested supplying defensive weapons so Syrian rebels can protect themselves from attacks by the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad.
More than 36,000 people have been killed since the Syrian uprising against Assad began in March 2011 and the new coalition is pressing for the means to defend Syrian civilians.
Since May 2011, the EU has imposed a ban on the export of weapons and equipment to Syria that could be used for “internal repression.”
France has taken the lead in efforts to oust Assad's regime, and Hollande reiterated Saturday that the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces is for France the sole representative of the Syrian people and a future provisional government.
Fabius will also press EU partners to recognize the coalition, Hollande said.
“We have no hidden agenda,” al-Khatib said in a bid to reassure other nations.
Hollande said al-Khatib, a preacher-turned-activist, reassured him that the coalition he leads seeks unity of the Syrian people and France aim in moving quickly is to “assure its legitimacy and credibility.”
The United States and other EU nations have said they prefer to wait and see whether the coalition truly represents the variety of people that make up Syria.
The coalition replaces the fractious Syrian National Council as the main opposition group - also recognized first by France - although that group makes up about a third of the 60-plus members of the new coalition.
“There will be an ambassador of Syria in France,” Hollande, with al-Khatib at his side, told reporters after the meeting. He conceded later that a proper locale must still be found to house him. The current Syrian Embassy building doesn't belong to France, he noted.
Al-Khatib quickly named him, Mounzir Makhous, describing him as “one of the first to speak of liberty" in Syria and, significantly, belonging to the Muslim Alawite sect of Islam, like Assad. Al-Khatib said Makhous holds four doctorate degrees.
It was widely believed that France might agree to the appointment of an ambassador, but not before a provisional government was formed. Al-Khatib suggested that a provisional government would come quickly.
The coalition has promised to include all the country’s ethnic and religious groups, including Christians and Alawites, in the government it plans to form, Hollande added.
“There is no problem. The coalition exists and we will launch a call for candidates to form a government of technocrats that will work until the regime falls,” Khatib told reporters after the talks in Paris.
The Paris meeting came as fighting continued on the ground, with a car bomb exploding as rebel and regime forces clashed in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, while mortar rounds struck near Damascus.
More than 39,000 people have died since the uprising against Assad’s regime erupted 20 months ago, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
There were more deaths on Saturday.
Two rebels were killed in fighting in Aleppo, the Observatory said, while a car bomb exploded in Liramun in the northwest of the city, and nearby areas were shelled.
Mortar rounds meanwhile struck Deir al-Asafir, an area south of Damascus where rebels and regime forces have clashed.
Regime troops in the capital cut a number of roads and blocked off areas, preventing residents from leaving, and warplanes overflew the Eastern Ghouta region near Damascus.
In eastern Syria, a rebel was killed in fighting in Deir Ezzor, while areas of the Old City neighborhood of the central city of Homs were shelled, said the Britain-based group.
Al-Khatib, with the coalition’s two vice-presidents, Riad Seif and Suheir, met in London on Monday with representatives of Britain, France, Germany, the United States and Turkey and Qatar. Lifting the arms embargo was discussed there as well.
He returned to London on Friday to meet with Britain’s foreign minister.