MARRAKECH, Morocco (AP) — The Syrian opposition called for "real support" and not just recognition on Wednesday, hours after the U.S. declared its new coalition was the "legitimate representative" of its country's people.
Speaking as the fourth meeting of the "Friends of the Syrian People" opened in the Moroccan city of Marrakech, opposition spokesman Walid al-Bunni called on the more than a hundred delegates from Europe and the Gulf countries to provide something concrete to help in their nearly two-year battle against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.
"Recognition is nice, but we need real support," said al-Bunni, of the newly formed Syrian National Coalition, as the conference began. "I will be happy after the conference if we have something for the Syrian people."
The Syrian National Coalition, formed in November during a conference in Doha, Qatar, has been calling for increased international support, including military material.
"We need not only bread to help our people," opposition member Saleem Abdul Aziz al Meslet told The Associated Press. "We need support for our Syrian army — we need to speed up things and get rid of this regime."
The U.S. move, announced by President Barack Obama late Tuesday, follows that of France and the U.K.
Syria on Wednesday denounced the decision, saying the opposition's only tactic is terrorism and recognizing it "hinders all international efforts aiming to solve the crisis in Syria through dialogue."
The U.S. and EU are not expected to approve military aid, in part over fears of al-Qaida linked rebel units operating in the country. There is currently an EU arms embargo on Syria which according to Foreign Secretary William Hague will next be discussed on March 1, saying "for the moment it stays in place."
There are also no representatives of the Syrian rebel forces at the conference.
John Wilks, the British special representative to the Syrian opposition, said that Wednesday's event was neither a donor conference nor a military aid event but rather an effort to set up opposition institutions so that they could effectively use future aid in a credible manner to administer the areas they control.
"The key point is that they are setting up institutions and money is coming, so it's a better situation than three months ago — they are happy, we are happy," he said before the conference began.
In her speech at the conference on the severe humanitarian needs of Syria's people, coalition vice president Suheir Attasi said that they have now created the necessary relief structures on the ground to receive aid, as had been requested by the international community.
According to Wilks, Britain had earmarked 50 million pounds ($80 million) of humanitarian aid and 7 million pounds ($11.2 million) non-humanitarian including communications equipment, training and office supplies — but no plans for now for military aid.
"There are big issues concerning legality — intervening in a civil war to overthrow a government is a difficult proposition, to put it mildly," he said.
Obama's announcement follows his administration's blacklisting of a militant Syrian rebel group with links to al-Qaida. That step is aimed at blunting the influence of extremists amid fears that the regime may use or lose control of its stockpile of chemical weapons.
The U.S. had been leading international efforts to prod the fractured Syrian opposition into coalescing around a leadership that would represent all of the country's factions and religions. Yet it had held back from granting recognition to the group until it demonstrated that it could organize itself in credible fashion.
The new president of the coalition, Mouaz Khatib, condemned "all forms of extremism" in his conference speech, a veiled reference to the jihadi groups operating in the country and he specifically called for reconciliation with the country's Allawite minority from which Assad comes, calling on them to fight with the opposition.
"We call on them to accept the extended hand and work together against the violence of the regime," he said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was expected to attend the conference, but cancelled following an illness and will be represented by Deputy Secretary of State for the Middle East, William Burns.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday the recognition contradicted earlier international agreements that foresee the "commencement of an all-Syria dialogue" that would include all sides of the conflict, in which more than 40,000 people have died so far.