LONDON Britain would like to formally recognise the Syrian opposition's fledgling coalition but needs to know more about its plans first, Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Friday.
The group was formed in Doha at the weekend in an attempt to unify the fractious movement trying to topple Bashar al-Assad and secure international recognition and arms.
Members of the coalition, including its leader Mouaz Alkhatib, are due to meet Hague and other Western officials in London on Friday before heading to Paris on Saturday.
France became the first European power to recognise the new body on Tuesday but other Western states are holding back, uneasy over the presence of radical Islamists among the rebels and accusations by U.N. investigators of war crimes committed by rebel fighters.
"We would like to be able at an early stage to recognise them as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people," Hague told reporters. "We need their assurances about being inclusive of all communities."
He urged the coalition to set out a credible plan for political transition and widen its support among the Syrian people as conditions for official British recognition.
Hague said the appointment of a vice president and showing a clear commitment to human rights were also urgent priorities.
The conflict in Syria, triggered by the Arab Spring-inspired uprising against Assad in March last year, has taken on an increasingly sectarian tone, and Syria's minorities fear the rise of the mainly Sunni Muslim opposition.
Alkhatib is a moderate Sunni Muslim cleric.
Sunni Muslims are the majority in Syria, while Assad is a member of the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam. Syria's other minorities have had a measure of protection under Assad's largely secular, autocratic rule.
ARM THE REBELS?
An estimated 38,000 people have been killed since the uprising began. Stalled efforts to stem the violence have received a renewed push since the re-election of U.S. President Barack Obama earlier this month.
The French foreign minister said on Thursday that France would in the coming weeks discuss whether to supply arms to Syrian opposition forces, and Hague said on Friday that Britain does not "rule out any option" in handling the crisis.
However, he appeared to play down the prospects of supplying military aid, at least in the near future.
"We are conscious that this ultimately needs, whatever happens, it needs a diplomatic and political solution. A military victory of one side over the other would be a long, expensive process in terms of human life," Hague said.
He said Britain's National Security Council, which met on Thursday, had discussed giving military aid to the Syrian opposition, but that Britain had not changed its position and would continue to supply only non-lethal assistance.
Hague said he might be able to make a decision on whether to recognise the Syrian coalition "in the coming days" and that he would make a statement to parliament on the issue next week.
European foreign and defence ministers are expected to meet on Monday to discuss Syria.
(Additional reporting by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Alison Williams and Tom Pfeiffer)