DOHA The world must help Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad as soon as a new opposition coalition demonstrates its influence on the ground, one of its leaders said on Wednesday.
Until now Western powers have been reluctant to give overt military backing to insurgents lacking a disciplined command structure. They fear sophisticated weapons might reach Islamist militants, who could later use them against the West or Israel.
But Suhair al-Atassi, vice president of the coalition forged in Qatar at the weekend, said the absence of outside military aid for the rebels had only swelled Islamist militancy.
"When the international community turned its back on the Syrian people fearing the rise of the Islamists, they encouraged this extremism," the pro-democracy activist said.
What started out as peaceful protests against Assad 20 months ago has turned into a civil war in which 38,000 people have been killed and atrocities have been committed by rebels, as well as by the Syrian military and pro-Assad militias.
Sunni Muslim jihadi groups are now prominent in the fighting and Syria risks being engulfed in all-out sectarian war that could destabilize Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
The opposition has created a body that represents "the real weight of the revolutionary forces" and must now prove it has legitimacy on the ground, Atassi told Reuters in an interview.
"The ball now is in the international community's court," she said. "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."
France and six Gulf Arab states have fully recognized the new coalition, but the United States and other nations say it needs more time to prove itself. Paris says it will explore arming the rebels once the body forms an interim government.
Atassi, one of the few Syrian women activists with a public leadership role, said the fledgling Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces was meant to be the sole channel for financial, humanitarian or military support, where donors had previously picked and chosen their preferred faction.
"There is no reason now to keep quality weapons away from the (rebel) Free Syrian Army. Now there is a unified, responsible body through which the army and revolutionary forces can be organized," she said.
Atassi, from a Damascene family with a history of defying the ruling Baath Party, said reconciliation efforts and talks with militants must start now to stop Syria from sliding into chaos and sectarian bloodletting in the post-Assad era.
Mostly Sunni Muslim rebels are battling to topple Assad, whose minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam. Syria also has Druze, Christian, Ismaili and Kurdish minorities.
"We have to start (reconciliation) talks from now. What will happen after the fall of the regime will be the harvest of what we plant today," said Atassi in the Qatari capital Doha.
"Of course there will be a reaction from a person whose sister, mother or daughter is raped or who sees killings happening in front of him. There is always a fear of revenge."
"But instead of understanding those people and talking with them, we have pushed them into a corner," she said, referring to those who have committed atrocities.
Atassi said dialogue should include ultra-orthodox Salafi Muslims and militants such as the al Qaeda-inspired Nusra Front, which sometimes cooperates with other rebel factions.
"There is still a chance. We have to sit down and talk with them. If we leave it until it is too late, they will get bigger and become extremists," she said.
Atassi, a 40-year-old mother of one, said she had personally sat down, unveiled, with Salafis and Nusra Front members.
A well-known human rights defender, she was dragged by her hair and arrested in Damascus at the first Syrian protest in March last year to demand the release of political prisoners.
A court charged her with "sowing division" but she was later set free.
Like many activists involved in the early non-violent struggle against Assad, she was dismayed at his military response to the protests and at the reluctance of world powers to help the armed rebellion which followed.
Atassi said women must take an active role in connecting with those involved in the battle against Assad.
"It is important that women work with the armed groups, not to carry weapons but to have a dialogue and work on humanitarian aid with them. They are our people."
(Reporting by Rania El Gamal; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Jon Boyle)