France became the first Western power to recognise a fledgling Syrian opposition council fully, stepping out beyond the United States, which said on Wednesday the body must first show its clout inside Syria.
Six Gulf Arab states recognised the Syrian National Council for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces on Monday and France followed suit the next day, unlike its European partners. President Francois Hollande's decisive posture on Syria recalled that of his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy on Libya last year, when France led calls for NATO action to protect civilians which effectively helped Libyan rebels topple Muammar Gaddafi.
The European Union bans arms sales to Syria, but Hollande said the question of arming rebels would be examined when the coalition formed a transitional government. Paris had previously ruled this out, fearing arms could reach Islamist militants.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the formation of the coalition, which supersedes the widely discredited Syrian National Council as the face of the Syrian opposition, was an important step, but did not offer it full recognition or arms. "We have long called for this kind of organisation. We want to see that momentum maintained," Clinton told reporters in the Australian city of Perth. "As the Syrian opposition takes these steps and demonstrates its effectiveness in advancing the cause of a unified, democratic, pluralistic Syria, we will be prepared to work with them to deliver assistance to the Syrian people."
Suhair al-Atassi, a vice president of the new coalition, said that once it had proved it represents "revolutionary forces" on the ground, there would be no excuse for Western powers not to provide some form of military backing.
"The ball now is in the international community's court," she told Reuters in an interview in Dubai, blaming Western reticence to arm the rebels for the rise of extremism in Syria. "There is no more excuse to say we are waiting to see how efficient this new body is. They used to put the opposition to the test. Now we put them to the test," she declared.
Syrian insurgents have few weapons against Assad's air force and artillery, which can pound rebel-held territory at will. A Syrian warplane bombed the town of Ras al-Ain near the Turkish border again on Wednesday, rocking buildings on the frontier and sending up huge plumes of smoke, in the latest of several attacks since rebels captured the town last week.
After 20 months of a conflict that has killed more than 38,000 people, fragmented Syrian opposition groups struck a deal in Qatar on Sunday to form a coalition led by Damascus preacher Mouaz Alkhatib, who has appealed for international recognition. Arab League and EU foreign ministers meeting in Cairo on Tuesday welcomed the coalition's formation as an important step, but did not recognise it as Syria's sole authority.
France, however, went ahead on its own. Hollande told a news conference in the French capital that Paris recognised the new Syrian national coalition "as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people and as future government of a democratic Syria making it possible to bring an end to Bashar al-Assad's regime". Clinton announced an extra $30 million in aid to those affected by the war in Syria, to be delivered via the United Nations' World Food Programme, which is supplying food to more than a million people in Syria and to 408,000 Syrian refugees.
The United States says it is providing only humanitarian aid and non-lethal assistance to Assad's opponents, it acknowledges that some of its allies are arming rebels - something which Russia says shows Western powers want to decide Syria's future. Russia and China have blocked any U.N. Security Council action on Syria, prompting Washington and its allies to say they could move beyond UN structures for their next steps. So far, concerted action on Syria has been thwarted by divisions within the opposition, as well as by big power rivalries and a regional divide between Sunni Muslim foes of Assad and his Shi'ite allies in Iran and Lebanon. An Iranian revolutionary guard general blamed Western, Turkish and Arab meddling for the bloodshed in Syria.
"They must leave the government and people of Syria alone so they can take the necessary decision about the kind of government in Syria," Brigadier-General Massoud Jazayeri was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars news agency. China also said Syrians should determine their own future. "A political transition process guided by the Syrian people should be initiated and pushed forward as soon as possible, to realise an appropriate peaceful and just resolution," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.