French President Francois Hollande used his first-ever news conference, on Tuesday, to dive headfirst into supporting the Syrian opposition, even while other Western powers are still dipping their toes in the water.
He announced that France will become the first Western country to fully recognize the new Syrian opposition council, which was only just formed on Sunday.
“I announce here that France recognizes the National Syrian Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people and, therefore, as the future provisional government of democratic Syria,” said Hollande in a televised address.
France is actually the seventh country to recognize the organization; six Gulf Arab states made the same announcement on Monday.
The National Syrian Coalition was forged out of heated discussions at a conference last week in Doha, Qatar. There, opposition activists in exile hammered out the details of a new body to replace the Syrian National Council, or SNC, which had claimed to be the face of the Syrian opposition but was criticized for being internally divided and woefully out of touch.
The new coalition will get to work on a transitional government to promote stability after the eventual ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
But the group’s first task is to prove that it can build a strong connection with rebel fighters on the ground -- at least, that’s what most Western powers are waiting for. Jaded by months of SNC infighting, the United States and the United Kingdom are hesitant to recognize the new coalition just yet.
“We now have a structure in place that can prepare for a political transition, but we're looking for it to still establish the types of technical committees that will allow us to make sure our assistance gets to the right places, both non-lethal and humanitarian," said U.S. State Department spokesperson Mark Toner, according to AFP.
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague was similarly noncommittal.
“We want to see that they have support inside Syria. That is a very crucial consideration,” he said, according to the BBC. "If they do all these things, yes, we will be able to recognize them as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people."
Both the UK and the U.S. regard the new coalition as a milestone for Syria, and are extending support for the rebels in other ways.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced on Wednesday that the United States would spend another $30 million on humanitarian aid for the opposition, bringing the total up to $200 million. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has also pledged to increase British funding for the rebels by about $22 million, bringing the total up to $80 million and making the UK the world’s second-largest donor to the Syrian rebels.
As the only Western country to recognize the brand-new Syrian National Council as the sole representative body of the Syrian people, France has cemented its own deep connection to the Syrian rebel cause.
Though separated by 2,000 miles, France and Syria have been closely intertwined since the end of World War I, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed and French troops moved in to occupy Syria.
France’s mandate, which officially began in 1920, was never convincing to the Syrian people; independence fighters never gave up the resistance. But it was World War II that eventually turned the tide; France fell to Axis powers, and Syria briefly became a battleground between Free French troops and the Vichy administration, the portion of France under4 a pro-Nazi goverment.
The occupation came to an end in 1946, when a weakened France finally withdrew from Syria altogether.
For Syria, the following years were unstable ones. The country endured a series of military takeovers until Hafez Al Assad gained lasting power in a 1970 coup; he held on until his death in 2000. His son Bashar ran for president unopposed, and has ruled the country ever since.
Now, France may become Syrians’ most useful partner in their fight for self-determination. This is perhaps no surprise, since France was also the first to recognize the ill-fated SNC. France was also the first Western power to lend legitimacy to the rebel movement in Libya.
The new opposition coalition is grateful for France’s quick affirmation, but impatient as the rest of the West makes up its mind.
Coalition Vice President Suhair al-Atassi told Reuters that she looked forward to proving the group’s ability to reach out to fighters on the ground – after that, she said, the West would have no excuse for holding back.
"The ball now is in the international community's court," she said.
"There is no more excuse to say we are waiting to see how efficient this new body is. They used to put the opposition to the test. Now we put them to the test.”
Atassi thinks the West should provide military assistance to the Syrian rebels, and France’s recognition of the coalition opens up that possibility.
But that would certainly be an uphill battle. As analyst Hugh Scofield wrote for the BBC, “Nothing will happen quickly, not least because France is bound by an EU embargo on arms deliveries to all sides in the Syrian conflict. Still [Hollande] did say that with the coalition now officially recognized, the question of arms could be re-opened -- and that will be seized on by the opposition as an important advance.”
Some Syrian rebels are already receiving arms from Gulf states like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, but those efforts are not well-coordinated and many in the West fear that the weapons could easily end up in the wrong hands. The Free Syrian Army is, after all, a hodgepodge of various militias. No chain of command unites them, and extremist militants have begun to infiltrate the movement.
France and other Western powers hope that the new opposition coalition will help to organize the rebellion in such a way that foreign assistance can be more targeted, and more effective.
The Syrian regime responded to the news of Hollande’s announcement with disdain. Deputy foreign minister Faisal Muqdad accused France of adopting its old colonialist mindset.
“We strongly condemn the French position, which is unacceptable,” he said, according to AFP.
“France is now giving financial and technical help to the terrorists. They are responsible for the killing of thousands of Syrians by giving the terrorist groups such a help.”
Meanwhile, the situation in Syria is getting worse by the day. The conflict, increasingly framed in religious terms that pit Sunni Muslims against Shi’as, has brought urmoil all across the region. Over 38,000 people have died during the 20-month conflict, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and more than 400,000 have fled the country.