By DON MELVIN and SLOBODAN LEKIC, Associated Press
BRUSSELS (AP) — The newly formed Syrian opposition coalition received backing from the European Union on Monday in a significant vote of confidence for a movement struggling to prove its credibility and gain the trust of splintered factions.
The endorsement of the coalition as a legitimate voice for Syria's people represents a major step forward in the West's acceptance of the group, even as fast-moving events and fluid alliances are casting doubts on the direction of the rebellion.
"The EU considers them legitimate representatives of the aspirations of the Syrian people," the bloc's 27 foreign ministers said in a statement at the end of their monthly meeting. They stopped short of offering official diplomatic recognition because that can only be decided by each member country individually.
The international support comes at a difficult time for the new coalition. Late Sunday, a group of extremist Islamist factions in Syria rejected the new opposition coalition, saying in a video statement they have formed an "Islamic state" in the embattled city of Aleppo to underline that they want nothing to do with the Western-backed bloc.
Few outsiders can be sure of exactly who is in the coalition of disparate opposition groups seeking to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and whether offering it support could be a cause for future regret.
"The nature of the opposition is still pretty fragmented," said Malcolm Chalmers, a professor of defense and foreign policy at King's College in London. "There are fears of what the opposition regime would look like. There is a strong wish that we get a regime that is broadly representative rather than sectarian with extreme agendas that the West would not support."
So far, France has been the only Western nation to extend diplomatic recognition to the coalition. The U.K. has indicated it will consider the issue later this week.
"I hope this meeting here today will give a boost to that opposition, to the coalition, and will appreciate that they have made a big step forward," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on his way into the meeting. "I will speak about the question of recognition when I talk to the House of Commons later this week."
Some EU members have suggested arming the Syrian opposition, but officials said the idea was likely to get little traction in the meeting Monday. A senior EU official said last week that shipping weapons to the Syrian opposition while keeping an embargo against the Assad regime in place would be very difficult to enforce.
Currently, the EU has an embargo prohibiting the shipment of arms into Syria. An EU official said Monday that embargo is likely to be renewed in full later this week.
Meanwhile, the EU joined the chorus of international figures expressing concern about violence elsewhere in the Middle East, deploring the mounting death toll in the Gaza conflict. A ministerial statement called for an urgent de-escalation and cessation of hostilities. It also expressed strong support for the efforts of Egypt and other actors to arrange for a rapid cease-fire.
Israeli forces are attacking Gaza in an effort to stop the militant rocket fire, and scores of Palestinians and three Israeli civilians have been killed in the conflict.
Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt said the most important thing is to arrange an immediate cease-fire.
"Then, we must look at the wider and deeper issues," he said. "This is the second Gaza war in a few years. We can't wait for the third and fourth."
The EU ministers also discussed how to provide assistance to the West African force that is scheduled to help Mali's tenuous government wrest control of the country's vast north that was seized by al-Qaida-linked fighters more than six months ago.
The ministers said they welcomed undertakings by member states to contribute to the training mission and would submit these plans to EU leaders for their approval at a summit next month. Several EU members have expressed their readiness to help train the Malian army so it can retake the north.
The United States is also worried that the Sahel region of northeastern Mali could become a terrorist haven, and is pushing for international action in the region.