WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama on Tuesday said the United States recognizes a coalition of Syrian opposition groups as the "legitimate" representative of that country's people, putting new pressure on Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Mr. Obama announced the policy shift in an interview with ABC News, calling it "a big step" as the United States and its allies support the rebels that have been engaged in a bloody civil war to topple Mr. Assad. The coalition already has won recognition from Britain, France and the European Union.
"We've made a decision that the Syrian opposition coalition is now inclusive enough, is reflective and representative enough of the Syrian population that we consider them the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime," Mr. Obama said in the ABC interview.
The conflict is approaching a turning point, with a conference of nations and organizations opposed to Mr. Assad due to convene today in Marrakesh, Morocco, to discuss how to oust him and avoid turning Syria into a failed state. The United States will be represented by Deputy Secretary of State William Burns after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton canceled her plans to participate because of illness.
Dennis Ross, a former Obama adviser who is now a counselor with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the administration is seeking greater influence with the Syrian opposition. He said that reflects signs that the Assad regime is unraveling. "What happens among the opposition is going to shape the future of Syria," and it is in U.S. interests to foster a more secular opposition government over one of radical Islamists, Mr. Ross said in an interview before the president's announcement.
Mr. Obama said the United States won't support factions in the coalition with extremist ties. He singled out the Jabhat al-Nusra group, which the United States has designated as a terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaida in Iraq. The U.S. recognition doesn't include providing arms.
Mr. Obama said recognition also carries with it certain responsibilities. The United States wants "to make sure that they organize themselves effectively, that they are representative of all the parties, that they commit themselves to a political transition that respects women's rights and minority rights," he said in the ABC interview.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday that the United States remains worried that arms flowing from Libya to Syria may end up being distributed to "groups or terrorists who then represent an even more dangerous threat."
Britain and France recognized the opposition alliance, rechristened the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, at a meeting last month in Doha, Qatar.
The insurgency began with peaceful protests against Mr. Assad's regime in March 2011 before turning violent a few months later. More than 41,000 people have been killed in the conflict, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.