The widely anticipated decision follows similar recognition by France, Britain and others, and it comes on the eve of a meeting of the Friends of Syria group of nations in Morocco on Wednesday that is expected to formally anoint the group. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was to announce the recognition at the meeting, canceled her trip because of illness.
“It’s a big step,” Obama said.
As rebel fighters have made significant gains on the ground against Assad’s forces in recent weeks, the administration and its allies have become concerned that events on the ground, including the growing prominence of extremist groups among the rebel forces, will outpace efforts to organize a cohesive political opposition. The coalition was formed last month, under the tutelage of the United States and the government of Qatar, joining representatives brought from inside the 20-month-old Syrian uprising with those working to build support outside the country.
“Not everybody who’s participating on the ground in fighting Assad are people who we are comfortable with,” Obama told Walters. “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.”
Obama specifically mentioned Jabhat al-Nusra, a militant group the administration on Tuesday designated as a terrorist alias of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
“Obviously, with that recognition comes responsibilities,” Obama said of the Syrian Opposition 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.”
Formal recognition of the opposition coalition evokes a similar move in Libya, when the United States, much of Europe and Arab states recognized opposition political leaders as part of an escalation of involvement in that country’s upheaval that led to military intervention. U.S. officials have repeatedly said that although all options remain open, administration policy for the moment is to provide only non-lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition.
As fighting continued, dozens of civilians were killed or injured in an attack in the central Syrian province of Hama, according to activists.
Details of the attack and the exact number of casualties in Aqrab, a village about 20 miles southwest of Hama, the provincial capital, were not clear. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a watchdog group based in Britain, said that at least 125 people had been killed or wounded, many of them minority Alawites.