EU foreign ministers Monday met the head of the newly formed Syrian opposition coalition which several believe should be recognized as the legitimate replacement for President Bashar al-Assad, AFP reported.
Welcoming Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib “is a clear signal of how the status of the Syrian coalition is being reviewed,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said as he went into a meeting with his EU colleagues at which the bloody conflict in Syria is a major talking point.
“It is a coalition which represents the legitimate interests of the Syrian people. We want that to be recognized as such by the European Union,” Westerwelle said.
Earlier British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was happy that EU ministers would meet Khatib and hoped that other member states would follow Paris and London in giving the group full recognition.
The EU currently recognizes the coalition as “legitimate representatives of the aspirations of the Syrian people,” which falls short of recognizing it outright as a potential successor government.
Full recognition could allow Western powers to arm rebel forces seeking to oust President Assad but that is a sensitive issue, with some EU member states very cautious about the possible unintended consequences of such a step.
The EU recently rolled over its arms embargo on all Syrian parties for another three months to March 1.
EU foreign policy head Catherine Ashton met Khatib earlier Monday, saying she had stressed that the new coalition had to ensure that it included all opinion in Syria and that it was committed to democratic standards.
Khatib has visited London and Paris but his meeting Monday with the 27 EU foreign ministers “has a larger symbolic importance,” one diplomat said.
After the talks, the European Commission announced that it would provide another 30 million euros in humanitarian aid to help people affected by the Syrian civil war, bringing its total contribution to some 126 million euros.
Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva said that the “humanitarian situation in Syria is deteriorating daily” and the increased aid was a gesture of support until “a viable political solution to this terrible conflict can be found.”
Germany expels Syrian embassy staff
Meanwhile, Germany on Monday expelled four employees of the Syrian embassy in Berlin, the foreign minister said, as part of moves to sharply curb ties to the regime of Syrian President Assad.
“We are sending a clear message with the expulsion of four Syrian embassy staff that we are reducing relations with the Assad regime to an absolute minimum,” AFP reported the Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle as saying in a statement.
“We are counting on the (opposition) national coalition growing more stable and developing as soon as possible functioning institutions for the political transition,” he added.
The ministry said that Syria’s acting envoy to Berlin had been informed of the decision today and that the staff had until Thursday “to leave their posts.”
Germany had expelled the Syrian ambassador to Germany in May, along with France, Britain, Italy and Spain following a massacre of more than 100 people in the Houla region north of Homs.
On Thursday, Germany’s cabinet also agreed to send Patriot missiles and up to 400 soldiers to Turkey to act as a deterrent against any spread of the conflict in Syria across the border, Berlin’s foreign and defense ministries said. The ministries said Germany’s parliament will vote on the mandate between Dec. 12 and 14.
Syrian regime ally, Russia, has opposed the deployment of NATO Patriot missiles in Turkey against Syria.
Meanwhile, Russia said on Monday that plans for Syria’s political future must not be forced on it from outside, underlining its hostility to foreign pressure for President Bashar al-Assad’s exit and to Western backing for an opposition coalition.
In a statement about talks on Sunday between international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and Russian and U.S. officials, the Foreign Ministry reiterated calls for an end to violence and the start of talks on “the parameters of a transition period,” Reuters reported.
It said Russia “stressed that fundamental decisions about reforming Syria’s political system ... must be made by Syrians themselves, without outside interference or attempts to force prepared recipes for socio-political development” on them.
The United States and its NATO allies have pressed for Assad’s departure as part of efforts to end the bloodshed in Syria, but Russia and China have blocked action against the Syrian leader at the U.N. Security Council.
Rebels capturing army base
On ground, Syrian rebels captured parts of another large army base in the country's north, just west of the city of Aleppo, tightening the opposition's grip on areas close to the Turkish border, the Associated Press reported activists as saying Monday.
Elsewhere, the rebels killed 13 soldiers in an ambush near a strategic northern town along a road linking Aleppo with Damascus, activists reported.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels entered the Sheik Suleiman military base on Sunday afternoon, after weeks of fighting around it.
The development was a significant boost for the rebels fighting to topple President Assad and defeat his military. Last month, they captured another base near Aleppo, the Syrian army's 46th Regiment base.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads to Observatory, said the rebels who stormed Sheik Suleiman belong to hardline Islamic militant groups.
Abdul-Rahman told The Associated Press that fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, Mujahedeen Shura Council and the Muhajireen group took part in the battle for the Sheik Suleiman base.
U.S. officials have said the Obama administration is preparing to designate the Jabhat al-Nusra group, which has alleged ties to al-Qaida, a terrorist organization.
The Observatory said the rebels seized key sectors of the base, home of 111th Regiment, including its command center.