US recognizes rebel group as legitimate authority in Syria

The White House has formally endorsed the main political wing representing rebel factions fighting for control of Syria against embattled President Bashar Assad, President Obama announced Tuesday.

The Syrian Opposition Coalition, the political arm of the rebel movement in the country, "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 said in an interview with ABC News.

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Obama's official stamp of approval for the coalition represents a break from the administration's previous unwillingness to back any one of the various rebel groups battling government forces loyal to Assad in the more than year-long civil war.

"It's a big step," Obama said during Tuesday's interview with ABC News.

"Obviously, with that recognition comes responsibilities ... to make sure that they organize themselves effectively, that they are representative of all the parties, [and] that they commit themselves to a political transition that respects women's rights and minority rights," the president added.

Despite the U.S. endorsement, the president made clear that the coalition, or its militant factions, would not be receiving American-made military hardware or weapons as part of the deal.

Washington's recognition of the Syrian coalition could certainly pave the way for that type of military support in the near future, however.

"Providing arms has to be done in a way that helps promote a political solution," a senior White House official told ABC News. However, "the president has never ruled out in the future providing arms," the official added.

In May, The White House has signed off on a plan ordering American officials to begin laying the groundwork for arming rebels fighting to overthrow Assad.

Under the plan, U.S. government officials will begin vetting certain elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to evaluate whether they meet the criteria to receive military support, according to news reports at the time.

Publicly, the White House and the Pentagon have been adamantly opposed to arming anti-government troops directly, fearing U.S. weapons could end up in the hands of al Qaeda or other Islamic radicalist fighters who have worked their way into the rebel ranks.

Assad's forces have mercilessly targeted rebel strongholds in northern Syria and across the country throughout the now 19-month conflict, zeroing in on rebel positions with attack helicopters, heavy artillery and fighter jets.

While anti-Assad forces have been able to battle back against government forces, recently taking the fight to Assad's doorstep in Damascus, rebel leaders continue to plead with Washington to provide arms and American airpower, as a way to counter Assad's blistering air and ground assaults in Aleppo and elsewhere.