Sheikh Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib is seen as moderate and charismatic, but some worry about his political inexperience.
EU foreign ministers have met the head of the newly formed Syrian opposition coalition in Brussels, with some arguing Ahmed Mouaz al-Khatib should be recognised as the legitimate replacement for President Bashar al-Assad.
Ministers said in a statement on Monday that the “EU accepts as legitimate representatives of the Syrian people” the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces which al-Khatib leads.
Previously, the EU had recognised the coalition as “legitimate representatives of the aspirations of the Syrian people”.
Asked about the importance of the change in wording, EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said the statement spoke for itself, adding that ministers had found it “incredibly useful” to have met al-Khatib.
While Britain and France have extended full recognition to the coalition, several EU member states have reservations about the group in terms of how representative it is and its democratic commitment.
The statement welcomed the coalition’s efforts to “become more operational and inclusive,” and encouraged it to continue to work on these goals.
‘Very clear assurances’
Al-Khatib gave the ministers “some very clear assurances about the inclusivity of the National Coalition”, according to British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
These assurances included the coalition’s desire to represent all people living in Syria, and included references to Kurds and Christians living there, he said.
“I’ve urged him to once again make very clear the commitment of the national coalition to all the things the Assad regime is not committed to,” Hague said, adding that this meant commitments “to human rights, to international humanitarian law, to democracy and freedom for the people of Syria”.
Full recognition of the coalition could allow Western powers to arm rebel forces seeking to oust Assad but that is a sensitive issue, with some EU member states still cautious about the possible unintended consequences of such a step.
The EU recently rolled over its arms embargo on all Syrian parties for another three months to March 1.
Pushed by Britain, the EU decided at the end of November to review sanctions on Syria every three months instead of every year to make it easier in future to equip the rebels.
After Monday’s talks, the European Commission announced that it would provide another $39m in humanitarian aid to help people affected by the Syrian civil war, bringing its total contribution to about $210m.
Al-Khatib, an Imam, author and activist, was in Brussels ahead of the Friends of Syria meeting scheduled for Wednesday in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh.
The US is expected to announce Washington’s backing for the new Syrian coalition at that meeting.
Earlier on Monday, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Germany had expelled four Syrian embassy staff as part of a drive to reduce ties with Assad.
“With the expulsion of the four embassy employees announced today we are sending a clear message that we are reducing relations with the Assad regime to an absolute minimum,” he said in a statement.
“We are counting on the [opposition] National Coalition strengthening further and building as soon as possible
functioning institutions for a political transition.”
Germany expelled the Syrian ambassador in May.