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U.S., International Governments Formally Recognize Syrian Rebel Coalition

December 12, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad faced new pressure at home and abroad today. A coalition of opposition groups won recognition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. And rebel fighters pressed their attacks in and around Damascus.

Across the Syrian capital, it was increasingly clear that no one and no place is safe. Amateur video showed burned-out cars from a blast near the Justice Ministry. And state television aired footage of emergency workers after three bombs exploded outside the Interior Ministry.

The attacks highlighted an upsurge in rebel assaults around Damascus and elsewhere. The New York Times reported the Syrian military is now fighting back with Scud missiles, firing at least a half-dozen in recent days. Against that backdrop, President Obama announced Tuesday that the U.S. will now formally recognize the Syrian opposition movement.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have made a decision that the Syrian opposition coalition is now inclusive enough, is reflective and representative enough of the Syrian population.

GWEN IFILL: Hours later, the friends of Syria meeting in Marrakech, Morocco, took the same step. The U.S. became one of 114 nations to endorse the Syrian National Council, created just last month under international pressure.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns:

WILLIAM BURNS, U.S. deputy secretary of state: In a growing number of towns and villages, a new Syria is being born. The regime of Bashar al-Assad must and will go. The sooner he steps aside, the better for all Syrians.

GWEN IFILL: Despite showing signs last week of a possible shift in Russia’s position, the decision didn’t go down well in Moscow, which opposes outside action against the Assad regime.

Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov:

SERGEI LAVROV, Russian foreign minister (through translator): As the coalition has been recognized as the only legitimate representative, it seems that the United States decided to place all bets on the armed victory of this very national coalition.

GWEN IFILL: But no weapons have been promised, and a spokesman for the coalition said it needs real support. The U.S. has resisted sending arms, amid fears they might wind up in the hands of Islamic extremist groups.

Just this week, Washington branded one such group, the Al-Nusra Front, an offshoot of al-Qaida in Iraq. But the head of the opposition council said today the Islamist fighters are partly responsible for the latest rebel gains.

MOUAZ AL-KHATIB, Syrian National Council (through translator): The decision to consider one of the fronts facing off to the regime as a terrorist group needs reconsideration. We affirm that all weapons used by the revolutionaries aim for the fall of this tyrannical, criminal regime.

GWEN IFILL: There was no dissent over the Marrakech meeting’s decision to send increased humanitarian aid and other non-military support. The U.N. now estimates that half-a-million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries, with two million more displaced within Syria itself.