Obama Stops Short of Endorsing Syrian Rebels

Anti-Assad coalition needs to reassure U.S., Israel, Obama says.

President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House, Nov. 4, 2012;  A boy carries a girl through ravaged Syrian streets.
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The U.S. would need to learn more about a new coalition of Syrian revolutionaries before endorsing them, President Obama said Wednesday, a day after the France announced it will recognize the group as the sole government in the war-torn country.

Obama said he is intent on seeing Syria become an "inclusive," "democratic" and "moderate" country, run by "thoughtful" leaders, while speaking at a press conference in the White House East Room. He was one of the first world leaders to call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, he added.

The president stopped short of endorsing the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, referencing the potential dangers of standing behind an unvetted group.

"I'm encouraged to see the Syrian opposition has formed a coalition group," he said. "We consider them a legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

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"We're not yet prepared to recognize them as some sort of government in exile."

Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain chided Obama on Monday for "leading from behind" in Syria. He said the U.S. should lead a military coalition to assist the rebel fighters, according to a CNN report.

"The Syrian opposition needs to know that the United States stands with them and that we are willing to take risks to support them when they need it the most," said McCain, while speaking to a group at the American Enterprise Institute. "Inaction denies us the opportunity to have influence with forces in Syria who will one day inherit the country, ceding that to foreign states that may not always share our values."

The U.S. has already provided hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Syria, but will need to learn more about the opposition coalition before propping them up. This "broad-based group" would first have to prove they would not use any arms supplied by the U.S. for attacking Americans or Israelis, Obama said.

[PHOTOS: Terrifying Images of Fighting in Syria]

The opposition group took an unusual approach in selecting its leadership in recent days by tapping a popular Muslim cleric who preaches unity and can get a crowd excited, The Associated Press reports.

"My brothers, we lived all our lives, Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites and Druze as a one-hearted community, and with us lived our dear brothers who follow Jesus, peace be upon him," Mouaz al-Khatib, 52, told a crowd of supporters near Damascus in April 2011.

Syrians describe him as a modest and unifying man of the people who commands wide respect, according to the AP.

Meanwhile, Assad and his supporters are quickly losing control of the country, following 20 months of brutal fighting that has left tens of thousands dead. One private intelligence group this week defined Assad's position as more of a "warlord" than president.

[OPINION: U.S. Should Be Wary of Arming Syrian Rebels]

"He no longer governs but uses his forces to compete with other forces," according to a Stratfor report. "Syria has started to look like Lebanon, with a weak and sometimes invisible government and armed, competing factions."

The State Department confirmed on Sunday it's willingness to work with the new coalition.

"We look forward to supporting the National Coalition as it charts a course toward the end of Assad's bloody rule and the start of the peaceful, just, democratic future that all the people of Syria deserve," said spokesman Mark Turner in a statement. "We will work with the National Coalition to ensure that our humanitarian and non-lethal assistance serves the needs of the Syrian people."

The State Department also credits the government of Qatar for its support.

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Paul D. Shinkman is a national security reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at pshinkman@usnews.com