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Last updated: May 6, 2013
Teresa Goncalves: What does France’s recognition mean for the Syrian coalition?

"The rebels continue to not be united and arming them could be disastrous"

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A ruthless dictator, failed negotiations and a fragmented and disjointed opposition have plagued the ongoing crisis in Syria. Learning from mistakes made in Libya, stronger efforts must be made to bring the different rebel groups together in order to strengthen the opposition. Rebel groups in Libya were, admittedly, much stronger than in Syria today, yet also divided. In arming them before all other possible means were exhausted, the West completely risked undermining the revolution and promoting extremism as well as causing an even bigger loss of life amongst the population.

On Tuesday, France became the first of the European countries to recognise the Syrian rebel coalition fully. But what does this recognition actually mean for Syria and a conflict that has to date reportedly killed almost 40,000 civilians, seen some 400,000 flee to neighbouring countries and, according to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, internally displaced 2.5 million people?

In reality, the coalition is still extremely weak. It is a huge umbrella of several differing rebel groups both within and outside of Syria, who have failed to secure any safe zones in the country. Furthermore, the coalition was formed after the Syrian National Council agreed to widen participation under increasing pressure, in the hope of attracting more support both from the West and the Arab League.

In backing the coalition group, undoubtedly the world is giving credence to the movement against the bloody dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad, however care must be taken. Assad has, in large part, managed to remain in power because of the divided nature of the opposition. The need for a solution that will see the ousting of Assad and his tyrannical government is undeniable; nevertheless this solution must be viable and stable. The most important thing now is to strengthen the standing of the coalition and its members by helping it assert itself as a legitimate governing body that could replace Assad.

In fully accepting the coalition, French President François Hollande also said he would reconsider the question of arming the opposition. British Prime Minister David Cameron has also expressed his wishes to end the 2011 arms embargo that was imposed on all sides in Syria, which would allow Britain to directly arm the Syrian rebels. His statement came as he travelled across the Middle East in the hope of selling arms in the Gulf region.

Lifting the embargo and arming the rebels now, because there is a paper-thin coalition, would be no different than having armed them 6 months ago. The rebels continue to not be united and arming them could be disastrous. As in Libya, the state and regime are indistinguishable in Syria; recognition from France, the Arab League, the US and other countries, therefore, could help to greatly empower the opposition by helping to unite the different groups and giving them the strength to establish political legitimacy and create a sound and centralised operational structure. This kind of acknowledgment places pressure on the group to succeed and to show that it has support within Syria, without this legitimacy and the ability to secure support from the divided armed opposition, the coalition will eventually fail.

The urgency for a solution for Syria is ever more pressing with reports of increased attacks on the civilian population, nevertheless there are no quick fixes and any attempt at such would only further endanger the lives of the Syrian people.

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