BEIRUTFrance on Tuesday became the first Western country to formally recognize Syria's newly formed opposition coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
The U.S. also recognized the leadership body announced in Qatar Sunday as a legitimate representative, but stopped short of describing it as the "sole" one, saying the group must first demonstrate its ability to represent Syrians inside the country.
The two announcements could start a trend toward world recognition of the rebels as the legitimate government of Syria, undercutting whatever legitimacy the regime of President Bashar Assad still has after 20 months of a bloody civil war.
"We look forward to supporting the national coalition as it charts a course for the end of Assad's bloody rule, and marks the start, we believe, of a peaceful just and democratic future for the people of Syria," said U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner in Washington.
Under intense international pressure to form an opposition that includes representatives from the country's disparate factions fighting to topple President Bashar Assad, the anti-government groups struck a deal Sunday in Doha, Qatar, to form a coalition headed by former Muslim preacher Mouaz al-Khatib.
The coalition includes representatives from the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, which was harshly criticized by many, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, for being cut off from rebels fighting the war on the ground and for failing to forge a cohesive and more representative leadership.
The new group is lobbying the international community for more powerful weapons to break the stalemate with the regime. U.S. and French recognition is seen as a welcome boost, but the opposition still has a long way to go to convince the international community the weapons will not fall into the wrong hands.
Islamic extremists have been taking a more public role in the fighting in Syria, and there is evidence of al Qaeda involvement as well.
"We now have a structure in place that can prepare for a political transition, but we're looking for it to still establish the types of technical committees that will allow us to make sure our assistance gets to the right places, both non-lethal and humanitarian," Toner told reporters in Washington.
The French decision was announced by President Francois Hollande, who used his first news conference since taking office six months ago to formally recognize the new group.
"I announce here that France recognizes the National Syrian Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people and, therefore, as the future provisional government of democratic Syria," Hollande said.
France, which has played a leading role in efforts to force Assad from power, was also the first to recognize the Syrian National Council. Hollande made no mention of that grouping on Tuesday.
France has acknowledged providing communications and other non-lethal equipment to Syrian rebels. It has been a leader in pressing for a tough U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria, but it has been blocked by Russia and China.
The French position appeared to break with the overall European position.
British Foreign Minister William Hague, speaking at the Arab League in Cairo Tuesday, said the opposition coalition must gain support from within Syria.
"That is a very crucial consideration, and if they do these things, well then, yes, we would then be able to recognize them as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people," he said.
A joint statement by the Arab League and the European Union said the two sides welcome the agreement reached in Doha by the Syrian opposition, which is seen as an "important step" in forming a widely representative opposition group.