PARIS -- France welcomed a member of the Syrian opposition as the country's ambassador on Saturday in a bold bid to confer legitimacy on the week-old opposition coalition and encourage other Western nations to follow suit.
The new envoy, Mounzir Makhous, appeared before the news media after talks at France's presidential palace between President Francois Hollande and the head of the newly formed Syrian opposition coalition.
France has stepped out ahead of Western allies nearly since the start of the Syrian uprising 20 months ago. Yesterday's surprise announcement came even before the new coalition has named its provisional government and before a place in Paris to house the envoy has been found.
"There will be an ambassador of Syria in France," Hollande announced. France expelled its Syrian ambassador in May.
Mouaz Al-Khatib, the opposition leader, described Makhous as "one of the first to speak of liberty" in Syria. He holds four doctorate degrees and belongs to the Muslim Alawite sect of President Bashar Assad, demonstrating an effort to reach out to all of Syria's people, al-Khatib said.
France recognized the coalition days after it was formed last Sunday -- and so far is the only Western country to do so.
France also took the lead in backing the Libyan opposition that ultimately ousted leader Moammar Gadhafi, and flew the first mission of the international coalition providing air support to Libyan rebels.
There is widespread fear that without a legitimate opposition force, the civil war in Syria could degenerate into sectarian battles pitting community against community.
But, the United States and other EU nations have said they prefer to wait and see whether the coalition truly represents the variety of people that make up Syria before they recognize it.
A Syrian government official dismissed Makhous' appointment, saying it was made at the behest of France. "If France has appointed him, then he is a French ambassador, not a Syrian one," he said.
The official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly on the subject.
More than 36,000 people have been killed since the Syrian uprising against Assad began in March 2011 and the new coalition is pressing for the means to defend Syrian civilians.