Syrian opposition leader to join EU ministers meeting
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The leader of Syria's new opposition group will join European Union foreign ministers at a meeting in Brussels on Monday, bolstering the movement's growing status among Western powers.
Mouaz Alkhatib, the head of the Syrian National Coalition, will attend at least part of the meeting, a spokesman for Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign affairs chief, said on Friday.
Ministers plan to discuss further steps to try to end the civil war in Syria and to look at ways of loosening an arms embargo in order to help elements of the rebel forces, EU diplomats said.
Alkhatib's appearance comes at a time when rebels have brought the 20-month-old uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the doorstep of the capital Damascus after fighting in which an estimated 40,000 people have been killed.
He has already visited London and Paris, and the coalition has been recognized by Britain and France as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
However, EU foreign ministers stopped short of fully recognizing the coalition at their last meeting on November 19, though did say they considered its members to be "legitimate representatives" of the Syrian people.
Monday's EU gathering is in the same week as a scheduled meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and allies and opposition representatives in the Moroccan city of Marrakech.
Clinton is expected to announce that the United States recognizes the new coalition as "the legitimate representative" of the Syrian people - an endorsement Washington hopes will help the group mature into a transitional government.
The United States is also expected to offer more non-lethal aid to the rebels, while placing one of the most radical fighting groups, the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, on a list of terrorist organizations. But the United States is not - for now - planning to supply arms to opposition fighters.
EU member states last week decided to review an arms embargo on Syria - which is designed to cut off supplies to Assad - every three months instead of every year.
The shorter review period is designed to allow amendments to be made to the embargo to facilitate the supply of non-lethal equipment to the Syrian rebels if deemed necessary.
(Reporting by Justyna Pawlak; Writing by Sebastian Moffett; Editing by Andrew Osborn)