Russia Criticizes U.S. Recognition of Syrian Opposition

MOSCOW — Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday criticized President Obama's formal recognition of the Syrian opposition.

Lavrov, who has been leading Russia's push to bring President Bashar al-Assad's regime and the rebel opposition to the negotiating table, said that the U.S. recognition "contradicts the Geneva Communique" to move such a "common dialogue" forward.

Obama on Tuesday announced the U.S. decision to grant the rebel opposition recognition during an interview on ABC News.

"We've made a decision that the Syrian opposition coalition is now inclusive enough, is reflective and representative enough of the Syrian population that we consider them the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime," Obama told ABC's Barbara Walters, joining Britain, France, Turkey, and other nations in recognizing the Syrian opposition.

Although Obama stopped short of authorizing Washington to arm the rebels, Lavrov on Wednesday argued that the U.S. recognition of the rebel groups alone indicates that the United States is in favor of an armed victory by the opposition forces.

"If the 'coalition' is recognized as the sole legitimate representative, then it seems that the U.S. is betting on an armed victory of the 'National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces,' " Lavrov said.

The Kremlin and Washington have butted heads over how to resolve the conflict in Syria for some time now. U.S. lawmakers have accused Moscow of supporting the Assad regime, while Russian officials have said that Washington's meddling in the region is sometimes counterproductive.

During a visit to Istanbul earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the Kremlin does not exclusively support the Assad regime, but he also noted concerns about "what will happen in the future."

"We do not want to repeat mistakes, which were made in the recent past," Putin said, referring to Western support of the opposition forces in Libya. "Who could have imagined back then that those same people, who were supported by the West, would bring the situation to a tragedy — would kill the ambassador of the United States?" he said in early December.

Despite assurances from Putin that Moscow isn't supporting the Assad regime, however, the Senate in late November approved an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would cut off all U.S. funding to Rosoboronexport, a Russian-state arms dealer that lawmakers say "has been arming the Assad regime as it continues to commit atrocities against the Syrian people." The measure, led by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has a counterpart in the House and includes a waiver for national security interests, such as Afghanistan.

"Continuing this robust business relationship with Rosoboronexport would continue to undermine U.S. policy on Syria and U.S. efforts to stand with the Syrian people," Cornyn said in a statement last week.

Supporters of the bill expect a comprise between the House and Senate versions to be made in conference, Winny Chen, a senior fellow at Human Rights First, told National Journal this week.

While there have been reports of Moscow supporting Assad through other means, such as printing money, Chen said that Rosoboronexport represents the only confirmed and "blatantly identified" support.

"There's certainly a focus there because they are so openly supporting the regime," she said.

Olga Belogolova is reporting from Russia through a program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists and funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Union of Journalists of Moscow.