European Union foreign ministers, in a new blow to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, on Monday said they viewed Syria’s just-formed National Coalition to be the “legitimate representatives” of the Syrian people.
A statement from the bloc’s 27 ministers welcomed the November 11 formation of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and said: “The EU considers them legitimate representatives of the aspirations of the Syrian people.”
“This agreement represents a major step towards the necessary unity of the Syrian opposition,” the ministers added.
France, which last week became the first Western country to recognize the Coalition as sole representative of the Syrian people, had urged fellow EU nations to follow in its footsteps.
Monday’s statement is a step short of the French stance.
Italy however joined France on Monday and Britain is expected to clarify its position in a parliamentary debate on Tuesday.
The group was formed in Qatar after 20 months of conflict that activists say has killed more than 39,000 people.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that all his EU counterparts had expressed “much sympathy vis-a-vis the coalition.”
“I think we will invite the Coalition leaders to our next meeting (in December) to allow them to talk to all of the foreign ministers, which will be highly symbolic,” Fabius said.
Meanwhile, the main Islamist rebel groups in Aleppo, a key front line in Syria’s civil war, Monday rejected the newly-formed Syrian opposition bloc saying they want an Islamic state, as clashes raged countrywide.
“We, the fighting squads of Aleppo city and province, unanimously reject the conspiratorial project called the National Coalition and announce our consensus to establish an Islamic state” in Syria, a spokesman announced in an Internet video statement.
“We reject any external coalitions or councils imposed on us at home from any party whatsoever,” he said.
The unidentified speaker sat at the head of a long conference table with at least 30 other men and a black Islamist flag on the wall behind him.
He listed 14 armed groups as signatories to the statement, including the Al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and Liwa al-Tawhid.
The Al-Nusra Front, which has become a formidable fighting force, has claimed the majority of suicide bombing attacks in Syria’s 20 deadly month-old conflict.
After the statement, another man held up a Koran, saying “make this your constitution” forcefully to the camera.
“God is greatest,” the group responded in unison.
Abdel Jabbar al-Okaidi, the head of the main rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the embattled northern city of Aleppo, told AFP that the statement did not represent the opinion of all rebel groups in the province.
“These groups represent a number of military factions on the ground and reflect their position, but not all military forces in Aleppo agree with this,” the defected former army colonel told AFP by phone.
“The military council has announced its support for the National Coalition and is collaborating with them,” Okaidi added.
Opposition bloc to be based in Egypt
The newly formed Syrian opposition bloc that has received Arab and international backing is to be based in Egypt, its head Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib told the official MENA news agency on Monday.
“It has been decided that the Syrian National Coalition will have its headquarters in Egypt," Khatib was quoted as saying after talks with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr.
Amr said Egypt was willing to “offer any assistance to the coalition in the coming phase.”
The National Coalition was formed last week after extensive talks in Doha, Qatar, one of the six Gulf states that have officially recognized it as the representative of the Syrian people, along with France and Turkey.
The Arab League has recognized the alliance as “the legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition.”
The coalition aims to present a united front to the international community and is lobbying for weapons and cash to help it topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
On the ground, fighting flared along the Turkish border on Monday as rebels took full control of a large army base in the northern province of Aleppo that had been besieged for weeks, a military source and a watchdog said.
“The attack (on Base 46) was huge. The rebels used more than five tanks, mortars and missiles and the army was forced to retreat step by step,” the military source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Many troops from the base were fighting elsewhere, so there were few units left guarding the 12 square kilometer (4.6 square mile) base, situated atop a hill west of Aleppo, the source added.
Near the northern border with Turkey, fighting raged between rebels and Kurdish fighters in Ras al-Ain in Hasakeh province, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
The head of the local Kurdish People’s Assembly was shot dead by a sniper from one of the rebel battalions, the watchdog said.
The clashes erupted after a Kurdish demonstration demanding that all rebels not from the town leave. The insurgents refused and attacked Kurdish militiamen at a checkpoint, leaving nine wounded on both sides, the Observatory said.
The Kurdish fighters belonged to the People’s Defense Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) which is linked to Turkey's rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
A Ras al-Ain activist reported that tension has been high between rebels and the PYD since the insurgents took the town last week.
“The rebels burned a flag of the (Kurdish) Democratic Union Party and the Kurds reacted by burning the FSA flag,” Havidar told AFP.
Rebels accuse Kurdish groups of negotiating directly with the regime, contradicting the aims of the armed rebellion.
Elsewhere on the Turkish frontier, fighting broke out near a border post in the town of Kasab in Latakia province, the Observatory said.
The watchdog which relies on a network of activists and medics, puts the death toll in more than 20 months of conflict at upwards of 39,000.