WASHINGTON — President Obama said Tuesday that the United States would formally recognize a coalition of Syrian opposition groups as that country’s legitimate representative, intensifying the pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to give up his bloody struggle to stay in power.
Mr. Obama’s announcement, in an interview with Barbara Walters of ABC News on the eve of a meeting in Morocco of the Syrian opposition leaders and their supporters, was widely expected. But it marks a new phase of American engagement in a bitter, nearly two-year-long conflict that has claimed at least 40,000 lives, threatened to destabilize the region, and defied all outside attempts to end it.
The announcement puts Washington’s political imprimatur on a once-disparate band of opposition groups, which have coalesced, under pressure from the United States and its allies, to develop what American officials say is a credible transitional plan to govern Syria if Mr. Assad is forced out.
Moreover, it draws an even sharper line between those elements of the opposition that the United States champions and those it rejects. The Obama administration coupled its recognition with the designation hours earlier of a militant Syrian rebel group, Al Nusra Front, as a foreign terrorist organization, affiliated with Al Qaeda.
“Not everybody who is participating on the ground in fighting Assad are people that we are comfortable with,” Mr. Obama said in an interview on the ABC program “20/20.” “There are some who I think have adopted an extremist agenda, an anti-U.S. agenda.”
But Mr. Obama praised the opposition, known formally as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, for what he said was its inclusiveness, its openness to various ethnic and religious groups, and its ties to local councils involved in the fighting against Mr. Assad’s security forces.
“At this point we have a well-organized-enough coalition — opposition coalition that is representative — that we can recognize them as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” he said.
For some experts on Syria, however, the question was whether Mr. Obama’s move was too little, too late. Britain, France, Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council have previously recognized the Syrian opposition. And the move does nothing to change the military equation inside Syria, where Mr. Assad has clung to power despite gains by rebel fighters.
Mr. Obama notably did not commit himself to providing arms to the rebels he is recognizing or to supporting them militarily with airstrikes or the establishment of a no-fly zone, a stance that has led to a rise of anti-American sentiment among many of the rebels.
The United States has played an active role behind the scenes in shaping the opposition, insisting that it be broadened and made more inclusive. But until Mr. Obama’s announcement on Tuesday, the United States had held off on formally recognizing the opposition coalition, asserting that it wanted to use the lure of recognition to encourage the rebel leaders to flesh out their political structure and fill important posts.
In recent weeks, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces has been in the process of developing a series of committees on humanitarian assistance, education, health, judicial matters and security issues.
Mr. Obama’s statement was an acknowledgment that the opposition had made sufficient progress to merit recognition. The American hope is that the opposition, in conjunction with local councils that are being formed in Syria, could help govern areas that have been wrested from Mr. Assad’s control, provide public services like law enforcement and utilities, and perhaps even channel humanitarian assistance. Alluding to this role, Mr. Obama said that the opposition would “have some responsibilities to carry out.”
But Mr. Obama’s move does not go so far as to confer on the opposition the legal authority of a state. It does not, for example, recognize the opposition’s right to gain access to Syrian government money, take over the Syrian Embassy in Washington or enter into binding diplomatic commitments.
It is also unclear to what extent the move might influence the situation inside Syria, where the pace of the fighting appears to have intensified. A senior American official who is attending the meeting in Morocco said on Tuesday that none of the rebel military commanders from the Free Syrian Army would be attending the meeting on Wednesday.
“There are people here who definitely coordinate with armed groups, with the Free Syrian Army,” he said. “That is not to say they are giving instructions to it; they do not. It is not to say that they are telling it what to do or what to say in the international field; they are not. In a sense, the Free Syrian Army is a separate organization.”
Andrew J. Tabler, a senior fellow and a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said: “The recognition is designed as a political shot in the arm for the opposition. But it’s happening in the context of resentment among the Syrian opposition, especially armed elements, of the White House’s lack of assistance during the Syrian people’s hour of need. This is especially true among armed groups.”