Should Obama Have Recognized the Syrian Rebels?

President Barack Obama officially recognized a coalition of Syrian rebels as the country's legitimate representative.

In this Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, a Syrian soldier aims his rifle at free Syrian Army fighters during clashes in the Damascus suburb of Daraya, Syria.
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President Barack Obama said Tuesday that the United States will officially recognize a group of Syrian rebels as the formal representatives of the country. The coalition of opposition forces are engaged in an almost two-year old conflict with President Bashar al-Assad, who refuses to relinquish his power.

Since the uprising began in March 2011, nearly 50,000 people have been killed. Obama, calling it a "big step," announced support of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces during an interview with Barbara Walters for ABC's 20/20.

"At this point we have a well-organized-enough coalition—opposition coalition that is representative—that we can recognize them as the legitimate representative of Syrian people," he said.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

The administration had held off in formally recognizing any group of Syrian rebels as the country's legitimate representative due to the ongoing conflict amongst them, even though France, Britain, Turkey, and the Gulf states had already acknowledged the coalition. Earlier on Tuesday, the United States designated the Nusra Front, a militant Syrian rebel group, as a terrorist organization.

"Not everybody who's participating on the ground in fighting Assad are people who we are comfortable with," Obama 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."

Despite the announcement, the president still stopped short of committing to any formal military support, such as providing arms or engaging in airstrikes. Obama has been criticized for his hesitation to directly involve the United States in the civil war, and what some call his lack of commitment to unseating Assad.

[ Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the U.S. Intervene in Syria with Military Action?]

Writing for U.S. News's World Report blog, Foreign Policy Initiative's Evan Moore said Obama's lack of action is a signal he is willing to tolerate Assad's violent attacks against his own people:

Bashar al-Assad believes that he can continue his brutal campaign with impunity, and it appears the Obama administration, so far, has given him no reason to believe differently. Now is the time to do so. Just as the horrific conflicts in the Balkans were only ended by U.S. intervention, American and allied direct involvement is the only way in which the Syrian conflict will end."

[ See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Yet some encourage continued lack of U.S. involvement because the country risks involving itself into what could become another costly and deadly war. Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation, said the United States would also likely face obstacles in creating a stable government if Assad were to fall:

Advocates of overt intervention have yet to offer a credible scenario for stability in Syria after Assad's ouster, yet they propose deep U.S. political commitment to a country that is likely to face years of civil war even if Assad is killed or abdicates.

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