President Barack Obama has announced formal U.S. recognition of the Syrian opposition coalition, calling it the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
The announcement comes after months in which Obama and U.S. officials carefully assessed capabilities and the composition of the Syrian opposition, and the cohesiveness of the new coalition formed in Qatar in November.
The president made the announcement during an interview with Barbara Walters of ABC News on the eve of a meeting in Morocco of Syrian opposition leaders and supporters.
"We made a decision that the Syrian opposition coalition is now inclusive enough, is reflective and representative enough of the Syrian population," he said.
The United States lagged behind other countries and regional groupings in recognizing the coalition, including France, Britain, Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The announcement came on the eve of the meeting in Morocco of the Syrian opposition and supporters. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns is attending the Friends of Syria meeting.
Press secretary Jay Carney told reporters, before the announcement of recognition, that the U.S. has been pleased with the progress made so far by the opposition and looks to a future Syria without President Bashar al-Assad.
"As we look to tomorrow’s meeting and our ongoing efforts to support the Syrian people, let me be absolutely clear: The United States stands with the Syrian people in insisting that any transition process result in a peaceful, unified, democratic Syria, in which all citizens are protected -- Sunni, Alawite, Christians, Kurds, Druze, men, women and children. And a future of this kind cannot include Bashar al-Assad," he said.
At the same time, Carney reiterated that the U.S. has no plans to supply anything but non-lethal and humanitarian aid to the opposition.
Carney also underscored President Obama's warning against any use by the Syrian government of chemical weapons, saying there would be consequences if they are used.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta suggested on Tuesday that there is less concern now about the use of chemical weapons.