France may provide arms as it recognizes Syrian rebel group

U.S. concerned Assad foes have ties to radical Islamists

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PARIS -- France on Tuesday became the first European country to recognize the newly formed Syrian rebel coalition and raised the possibility of arming the group as it begins taking charge of the opposition's role in the civil war.

The French announcement, conveyed by President Francois Hollande at his first news conference in office, went beyond other Western pledges of support for the new Syrian rebel group, which was officially created Sunday and calls itself the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

Though the United States and Britain have welcomed the rebel group's formation, they have nonetheless held back on whether to recognize it as the legitimate government of Syria for now and have expressed reluctance to provide it with lethal military aid in their struggle to oust President Bashar Assad. That is in part because of uncertainties over how weaponry would be used and fears that it would fall into the hands of radical jihadists in Syria who are also fighting to topple Mr. Assad.

"I announce that France recognizes the Syrian National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people, and thus as the future provisional government of a democratic Syria, and to bring an end to Bashar al-Assad's regime," said Mr. Hollande, who has been one of the most vocal critics of Mr. Assad's harsh repression of domestic opposition.

As for weapons, Mr. Hollande said, France had not supported arming the rebels up to now, but "with the coalition, as soon as it is a legitimate government of Syria, this question will be looked at by France, but also by all countries that recognize this government."

His announcement came as the rebel coalition's newly chosen leader, Sheikh Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, a former imam of the historic Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and a respected figure inside Syria, made a broad appeal to Western and Arab countries for recognition and military aid.

Foreign ministers of the Arab League, while approving the new group as the "legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition," have not agreed on recognizing the group as a provisional government to replace Mr. Assad.

There are widespread expectations that the new coalition will seek to establish itself as the government in rebel-held areas of northern Syria near the Turkish border, which, if successful, could attract wider recognition and aid and signal a significant change in the conflict.

Mr. Assad has ridiculed the insurgency against him partly because it does not have cohesive control in any part of the country. He has also benefited from the opposition's fractiousness. The French recognition came as new fighting raged inside Syria, and international relief agencies warned that the humanitarian crisis there had worsened in the past few weeks.

Ras al-Ain, a rebel-held Syrian village a few yards from the Turkish border, was bombed by Syrian aircraft for the second consecutive day. And tensions remained high along the armistice line between Syria and Israel in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights area controlled by Israel since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Israeli tank gunners blasted a Syrian mobile artillery vehicle there Monday in response to repeated instances of errant mortar shells landing on the Israeli side.

Anti-Assad activists reached in Damascus, the capital, said security checkpoints had been vastly expanded in recent days in response to fighting between insurgents and loyalist forces in the suburbs. They said it was also becoming more difficult to go shopping or exchange money.

In Geneva, the U.N. refugee agency said about 2.5 million Syrians had been driven from their homes throughout the conflict, citing estimates from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, the principal local partner delivering relief on behalf of international aid groups. Previous assessments said 1.2 million people had been displaced by the civil war, but even the new figure might not capture the full extent of the crisis.

"People are really on the run, hiding," U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said. "They are difficult to count and difficult to access."

More than 4,000 Syrians fled to Jordan in the past week, the highest weekly outflow there in two months, Ms. Fleming said, in addition to 9,000 Syrians who crossed last week into Turkey. Increasing numbers of Kurdish Syrians are escaping to Iraq, which is now hosting more than 50,000 Syrian refugees, she said.

As further evidence of widening violence, Ms. Fleming said her refugee agency was withdrawing some staff members from the northeastern governorate of Hassakeh.

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