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Syria

EU boosts status of Syria's National Coalition

The EU’s foreign ministers will intensify cooperation with Syria’s new National Coalition. With Syrian president Assad losing ground at home, Western powers have to prepare for a post-Assad era, say security experts.

The extent to which the situation in Syria has become a symbol for the struggle for peace was underlined yet again on Monday (10.12.2012). European Commission President José Manuel Barroso made reference to Syria in his acceptance speech in Oslo, where he and fellow European representatives collected the Nobel Peace Prize in the name of the European Union.

"The current situation in Syria is a stain on the world's conscience", Barroso said, adding that "the international community has a moral duty to address it."

The statement came as EU foreign ministers gathered in Brussels to meet with Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, the head of Syria's newly formed National Coalition. Speaking after the meeting with al-Khatib, Germany's foreign minister Guido Westerwelle said he was satisfied that the EU's foreign ministers had decided to elevate the status of the oppositon National Coalition.

'Pluralistic future for Syria'

Al-Khatib answered EU foreign ministers' questions in Brussels

Westerwelle said he was convinced that "there is an alternative to the Assad regime. There is a pluralistic future for Syria." The new National Coalition, according to Westerwelle, was a "coalition of diversity" that represents different religious and ethnic groups.

Back in November, the EU had called the coalition "legitimate representatives of the Syrian people's hopes".

But at the time, the coaltion was seen as one of many interlocutors. France and Great Britain were the first to recognize Al-Khatib's group as the main partner for dialogue. Germany later followed suit.

"The decision to revalue our cooperation is the right decision", said Westerwelle, adding that "the timing is perfect. We are using the current momentum. This is an important measure to advance the erosion of the regime."

Adding to the mounting pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Germany also announced on Monday that it was going to expel four Syrian diplomats from Berlin, in a move to reduce contact with the Assad regime "to a minimum".

Opposition overcoming internal divisions?

Overall, signs have been increasing lately that the days of the Assad regime could be numbered - both on the military and the political level, said security expert Marc Pierini from the Brussels-based think tank Carnegie Europe.

He told Deutsche Welle that the formation of the Syrian National Coalition was a crucial step towards the transition to a post-Assad regime. It was a sign, he said, that the opposition was at last overcoming its inner divisions – a factor that had long made it impossible to reach a lasting solution regarding any form of transitional government.

Pierini: 'Legitimacy of US and EU to give advice is limited'

One goal of the meeting in Brussels was to prepare a 'Friends of Syria' conference in Marrakesh which will be held later this week. The aim is to "provide details as far as the balance of power of the various components of the opposition is concerned", Pierini said.

That balance of power, he added, would significantly shape diplomatic ties between any potential government ruling a post-Assad Syria and Western powers, such as the EU or the United States.

Pierini pointed out that, given Western powers' continued opposition to a military intervention to put an end to the 21-month conflict, their future influence on the Syrian opposition might be limited. "The rebels are saying: Who are you to give us advice? We've done it ourselves and you haven't given us any weapons."

National Coalition still needs to 'learn the ropes of diplomacy'

Once the balance of power within the new National Coalition is known, however, Western powers could seize the opportunity to win back some trust by the Syrian opposition. "The Syrians can now appoint somebody like a ‘foreign minister' who can conduct a dialogue with Syria's partners", said security expert Pierini.

Western powers could share their political know-how with the new National Coalition, for example, because "of course the Syrian opposition still have to learn the ropes of international diplomacy."

The conflict in Syria has cost an estimated 40,000 lives so far. The EU Commission also announced on Monday that it would step up humanitarian aid by another 30 million to 126 million euros overall. The money is aimed at helping some two million civilians in Syria and the  more than 474,000 Syrians who have escaped into neighboring countries so far.

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