The U.S. formally recognized the recently formed coalition of Syrian rebels as the “legitimate representative” of the people, President Barack Obama announced Tuesday, in a departure from Washington’s earlier stance that the coalition needed to demonstrate their influence on the ground before being granted the recognition.
"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," Obama said during an interview with ABC News.
"It's a big step," Obama said of the decision.
The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which will include members within Syria and abroad, was formed Nov. 11 when the Syrian opposition factions agreed to set up a new and more inclusive 60-member leadership council at a meeting in Qatar.
The six nations of Gulf Cooperation Council were the first ones to recognize the group as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people.
France was the first Western power to formally recognize the group Nov. 13 followed by the UK.
The National Coalition's president is Moaz al-Khatib, a Sunni Muslim cleric who was once imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and was jailed several times for criticizing the president before leaving Syria in 2012.
“Obviously, with that recognition comes responsibilities," Obama said during the interview. "To make sure that they organize themselves effectively, that they are representative of all the parties, [and] that they commit themselves to a political transition that respects women's rights and minority rights."
However, he stressed that the recognition did not mean the U.S. was extending approval to the extremist elements among the rebels.
"Not everybody who's participating on the ground in fighting Assad are people who we are comfortable with," he said. "There are some who, I think, have adopted an extremist agenda, an anti-U.S. agenda, and we are going to make clear to distinguish between those elements."
Washington’s recognition has come ahead of the meeting of the high-level representatives from nations in the Friends of Syria group in Morocco for the first time since the formation of the Syrian opposition coalition.
The meeting in Marrakesh will focus on the goal of agreeing on a strategy for a political transition if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government was toppled.
Earlier, the U.S. State Department had announced that it had classified the al-Nusra Front as a foreign terrorist organization, responsible for nearly 600 attacks since November last year. The group has carried out more than 40 suicide attacks and improvised explosive device operations in major city centers including Damascus, Aleppo, Hamah, Dara, Homs, Idlib, and Dayr al-Zawr, the State Department said Tuesday.
Al-Nusrah is a known collaborator with the Free Syrian Army fighting against the Assad regime, but the State Department has said that al-Nusrah is also an alias for al-Qaeda in Syria.