U.S. Recognizes Syrian Opposition Group As Representative Of Syrian People

Following most other western nations, the United States is now recognizing a Syrian opposition group as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people:

In a diplomatic shift, President Obama said today his administration now formally recognizes the newly-formed, leading coalition of Syrian rebels who are fighting to topple Syria’s embattled President Bashar Assad.

“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.

The announcement, made during an exclusive interview with ABC News’ Barbara Walters, grants new legitimacy to the rebel group and marks a new phase in U.S. efforts to isolate the Assad regime.

“It’s a big step,” Obama said of the decision. The United States follows Britain and the European Union, both of which last month recognized the Syrian opposition group.

The diplomatic designation will allow the United States to more closely support rebel efforts, including the organization of a future post-Assad government, administration officials said.

“Obviously, with that recognition comes responsibilities,” Obama said of the young coalition. “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.”

This move comes just a few days after the State Department had designated a separate Syrian group called Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist group due largely to its ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq. It also comes at a time when the Syrian rebels appear to be making some major gains on the ground as they edge closer and closer to Damascus. The problem is that kicking Assad out of Damascus may only be the beginning of the battle:

The most likely option, however, and one that appears already to be under way, is for the regime and the core of the army and security forces to retreat to the Alawite-populated mountains on the Mediterranean coast. Diplomatic sources say that there are unconfirmed reports that the regime is planning to register all Sunnis who live in the coastal cities of Tartous, Banias, and Latakia which could potentially form part of an Alawite-dominated enclave. The coastal cities are predominantly Sunni-populated while the mountain hinterland is mainly Alawite.

Furthermore, there appears to be a steady and discreet trickle of families of pro-regime Alawite army officers leaving the upmarket Mezzeh neighborhood of Damascus for the coastal mountains.

“More and more regime supporters and, or their families are moving up the coast, and there are persistent rumors that at least part of the government now sits in Tartous,” the European diplomat says. “All indications are that the regime’s fallback position is to retreat to the coastal area of Tartous and Latakia.”

Significantly, units of the rebel Free Syrian Army operating north of Damascus appear to be limiting ambushes to south-bound military traffic heading to the capital along the main highway, the sources say. Vehicles heading north are left unmolested, raising the possibility that the highway, which leads to Tartous, is being offered as an escape route for the regime to prevent a protracted and bloody last stand in Damascus.


“The Alawite community … is counting on [Assad’s] army to protect them from possible retribution from the rebel militias,” writes Joshua Landis, professor of Middle East history at the University of Oklahoma and author of the influential Syria Comment blog. “Sectarian hatred has been driven to a fever pitch by the brutality of the regime. Syrians have been putting hate into their hearts over the past two years, making the likelihood of some sort of retribution ever more likely and the ethnic cleansing a possibility, even if a small one at the time.”

A rump regime well-entrenched into the mountain villages defended by the Alawite core of the army and security services equipped with armor, artillery, air power and possibly even chemical and biological weapons could buy the Assads some breathing space during a likely period of chaos caused by a sudden leadership vacuum in Damascus. But it is questionable whether it would provide a long-term solution for the Assad clan’s survival.

In other words, the civil war in Syria wouldn’t be over. It would just enter a new phase in which Assad and the Alawite’s would potentially be able to hold out for a long period of time while the war continues.


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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Anderson says:

    What are those mountains good for, exactly? Short-term at least, can the Alawites just be left to themselves in their mountain splendor?

  2. Rob in CT says:

    We seem to be edging closer and closer to backing “regime change.” Again.

    Forgive me if I’m not doing cartwheels.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I suspect that recognizing one group of Syrian rebels as legitimate and denouncing another as a terrorist group are not unrelated matters. My guess is that we’re hoping that recognizing the one will make it less likely that the other one will end up running the country. It’s a good thing to hope for but I’m not too optimistic.

  4. scott says:

    Based on our past experiences, this will not end well. Studied neutrality should be our policy.

  5. Gustopher says:

    @Rob in CT: the regime seems to be changing, whether we back regime change or not.

  6. stonetools says:

    @Rob in CT:

    Non-interventionism always tends to be viewed as not contributing to regime change , but of course its not-its just another way of affecting the situation.
    The problem with non-interventionism is that it means non-influence .Now that’s OK if the country is unimportant, but Syria is and will remain an important piece of the Middle East puzzle, if for no other reason that it borders on two of our major allies .
    Now the Obama Administration has been cautious about supporting the rebels (rightly so), but Salafist groups in the Middle East have been vigorous in supporting their part of the rebel movement, with the result that they now dominate, or will soon dominate , the rebel coalition.
    Contrast that with Libya, when the West took the lead in supporting the rebel movement. The result was not only the overthrow of an anti-Western regime, but the installation of a pro-Western regime. Now the Benghazi incident shows that its not all Happy Gum Drop Fairy Land in Libya, but its better to have a pro- Western regime in charge in Libya with scattered jihadist opposition than to have a jihadist regime in charge.
    A jihadist regime in charge in Syria is a result that no one in the West wants, because it likely will have knock-on effects in Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, and maybe Iraq . Helping the rebel movement NOW may be a way of avoiding that result later.

  7. michael reynolds says:

    I believe based on BBC reporting (I don’t have a link, heard it weeks ago and it may be out of date) that this group was actually formed in large part by the US. We wanted some group to recognize, didn’t like what we had available at the time, sponsored a new arrangement then delayed recognition long enough to make our incriminating fingerprints seem less visible.

    The reason for diplomatic involvement is obviously to try and empower the non-Al Qaeda elements. I have no idea if it will work, but given the stocks of Sarin and anti-aircraft weapons in Syria, it’s certainly important to try.

  8. Just Me says:

    I am fine with regime change at this point as long as it doesn’t involve putting our military members at risk (eg I do not want to get into another Iraq/Afghanistan style regime change war) and at this time I would like to see the US limit itself to diplomatic means.

  9. stonetools says:

    I think the USA is gearing itself up for the real possibility that the regime may use chemical weapons against the rebels. Recognizing the coalition is the USA adding another warning that they just may intervene if the regime uses chemical weapons.
    I’m listening to a New Yorker podcast which says that Iran is actively helping the Assad regime through Hezbollah ( from Syria) and through Iraq.
    The Assad regime is Alawite( a brand of Shia). Iran, Hezbollah, and the Iraq regime are all Shia. To add spice to the situation, remember the rebels in Iraq that we fought so hard against , and that are still there ? Sunni , and they would be on the side of the Syrian rebels.