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EU backs new Syrian opposition group

By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times –

LONDON — The European Union threw its political weight behind a newly formed Syrian opposition coalition Monday in a boost to efforts to unite the many factions trying to bring down the regime of President Bashar Assad.

The Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces was created this month and comprises dissidents drawn from both inside and outside the embattled Middle Eastern nation, as well as from various religious and ethnic minorities.

“The EU considers them legitimate representatives of the aspirations of the Syrian people,” European foreign ministers said in a statement after their monthly summit Monday in Brussels. “This agreement represents a major step towards the necessary unity of the Syrian opposition.”

The EU’s move is largely symbolic, since full diplomatic recognition remains within the purview of the individual governments of the trading bloc’s 27 member states. But such broad European support offers a morale boost to the opposition coalition in its effort to diminish the sharp divisions between various rebel groups.

Last week, France became the first Western power to recognize the coalition as, in effect, Syria’s government in exile. A few days later, Britain said that it too wanted to grant some form of official recognition to the organization “at an early stage” after vetting its membership.

On Monday, Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Monti told Al-Jazeera television that his country would offer political recognition to the opposition coalition, though not yet full diplomatic ties, the Italian news agency Ansa reported.

There has been reluctance by some Western countries to give full backing to the new organization because of the potential it might include Islamic extremists. At the same time, the EU and other Western authorities have insisted that any umbrella organization be truly pluralist to reflect a population made up of a patchwork of different ethnicities and religions, including Shiite and Sunni Muslims and Christians.

The difficulty of bringing squabbling factions together was underlined Sunday by the refusal of an Islamist group to join the coalition. The group said in a video statement that it had formed an “Islamic state” in the besieged city of Aleppo and did not want to associate with the new coalition, The Associated Press reported.

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