BRUSSELS EU foreign ministers, meeting the leader of the Syrian opposition on Monday, moved towards full recognition of a new coalition ahead of a diplomatic gathering aimed at bolstering aid for rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad.
In part because of concerns about the presence of radical Islamists among the rebels, the European Union did not offer full recognition to the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), as Britain and France have. The bloc also has called on the grouping to become more inclusive.
But the EU offered to "continue engaging with and to support the Coalition" as it worked towards creating "a credible alternative to the current regime" of President Bashar al-Assad.
"It is the right time to upgrade the SNC today," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told reporters in Brussels, where foreign ministers had gathered.
"We think it will be an important means to promote the process of erosion in the regime of Assad."
Recent steps towards full recognition show how the formation of a united Syrian opposition has galvanised overseas support for the rebels.
Mouaz Alkhatib, a popular Damascene preacher, was in Brussels ahead of the Friends of Syria meeting scheduled for Wednesday in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to announce Washington's backing for the new Syrian coalition at that meeting.
Alkhatib said he expected to get a decision on Wednesday from the EU over whether it would recognise the coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
"This is under discussion because the European countries each have their own point of view and they are debating the issue," he told reporters after he left midway through the ministers' meeting. "They will give the final answer in Marrakesh."
The EU - whose leaders on Monday received the Nobel Peace Prize for its promotion of stability and democracy - reminded Alkhatib of his responsibilities.
"The EU encourages the Coalition ... to remain committed to the respect of the principles of human rights, inclusivity, democracy and engaging with all opposition groups and all sections of Syrian civil society," the ministers said in a statement.
Alkhatib gave them "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".
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.
The sanctions include an embargo on the supply of arms to the country, imposed to prevent the flow of weapons to Assad's forces. The new, shorter review period will allow the EU to look at amendments to the embargo to possibly allow the supply of non-lethal equipment to the Syrian rebels.
Ministers discussed possible supplies on Monday, but Greece said it would oppose any such move, said one EU diplomat.
The EU has said in the past that it would support taking action against war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria to the International Criminal Court. However, ministers decided on Monday that such a move could complicate their work with the new opposition for now, the diplomat said.
(Reporting By Sebastian Moffett; Editing by Michael Roddy)