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U.S. gives Syrian opposition new status ahead of leader's visit

By Elise Labott, CNN Foreign Affairs Reporter
updated 8:06 PM EDT, Mon May 5, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The U.S. will recognize offices of the Syrian opposition as formal diplomatic missions
  • It's a more assertive step than the Obama administration has been willing to take
  • The move comes ahead of a visit by the head of the opposition council, Ahmad al-Jarba

(CNN) -- The United States said it would recognize offices of the Syrian opposition as formal diplomatic missions on Monday ahead of an official visit by the opposition's political leader.

The upgrade in status of the Syrian Opposition Coalition's liaison offices in Washington and New York as "foreign missions" under U.S. law is largely symbolic.

But it is a more assertive political step than the Obama administration has been able to do in the past. It is one that will help facilitate banking and security services for the opposition and shore up its legitimacy with the U.S. government and with the Syrian diaspora in the United States.

The State Department closed the Syrian embassy about six weeks ago.

Deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf called the designation another step to underpin the relationship.

"This is not tantamount to recognition of the SOC as the government of Syria," Harf told reporters. "It's a reflection of our partnership with the coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people."

The move was one of several initiatives designed to boost the Syrian opposition on the eve of a visit later this week to Washington by Ahmad al-Jarba, the president of the opposition council.

The State Department also announced $27 million in additional non-lethal assistance to the council, and promised to step up delivery of non-lethal aid to moderate commanders in the free Syrian army to increase its "logistical capabilities."

The new aid raises total American assistance to Syrian opposition groups to $287 million as the conflict enters a fourth year.

"This is an important step in the path toward a new Syria, its recognition on the international stage, and its relations with Syrian nationals in the U.S.," Jarba said in a statement, calling the move a diplomatic blow to President Bashar al-Assad's legitimacy.

"The new status provides a diplomatic platform for the coalition to advance the interests of the Syrian people at all levels," he said.

Meetings with Kerry, and in Congress

Jarba will meet with Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday, as well as with White House and Pentagon officials and members of Congress.

He will be seeking more sophisticated weapons for rebels battling the regime and extremist forces. He will be joined by Brig. Gen. Abdel Ilah al-Bashir, the new chief of the rebel Free Syrian Army,

Jarba's visit comes as forces loyal to al-Assad have made recent battlefield gains and the government announced it would hold presidential elections in June, which have been denounced by the United States as a "sham" and "parody of "democracy."

Efforts to negotiate a political solution between the opposition has failed and the international community is investigating what it calls credible claims the Syrian government may have used chlorine gas in a deadly attack on its people last month, even as weapons inspectors rid Syria of its most dangerous chemical weapons.

The SOC hopes to capitalize on bi-partisan criticism of the administration's limited response to the conflict in Syria. Despite calls from key members of the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees to send more arms to vetted moderate rebels, the White House has avoided deeper military involvement.

Objective: Lay a foundation

"The objective of the visit is to lay the foundation for a strategic partnership between a new Syria and the United States," said Oubai Shahbandar, a former Pentagon official who advises the SOC. "There is a very heavy focus on making the case to Congress on why the Syrian opposition is a credible partner with the United States in stopping al Qaeda, protecting the Syrian people from the regime's atrocities and in countering Iran in Syria."

There are some signs the United States is quietly supplying rebels with more sophisticated weapons, as rebels in Syria have been discovered with American anti-tank missiles.

Shahbandar said this small increase in military support over the past few months has provided a "proof of concept" that moderate Syrian rebels can be trusted to use arms effectively without having them into the hands of extremists.

"We are going to lay out our vision and our plan and show there is greater political and military unity," Shahbandar said. "We want to show we are appreciative of the American people's support but we need more to stop the regime's systemic policy of killing."

U.S. officials will only say they are working through America's allies to change al-Assad's calculus on the battlefield, which in turn they hope will give life to stalled efforts to reach a political solution.

Power vacuum in Syria

As Syria's civil war creates a power vacuum, radical groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have stepped in with their own form of Sharia law to rule over an exhausted and terrorized civilian population.

"There certainly seems to be an advantage that the regime has, and that is very unfortunate, and that is not helpful to getting those conditions," a senior administration official told reporters on Monday.

"Of course we are frustrated like others that we haven't made more progress towards them, but I do think that it is consistent to understand that that asymmetry which exists on the ground militarily, unfortunately, between the regime and the moderate opposition is problematic for the emergence of the kinds of political conditions necessary for a serious political process," the official said. "And we and others are focused on that."

It is unclear whether Jarba would meet with President Barack Obama, although members of the SOC and State Department officials said they hoped a meeting would take place.

Andrew Tabler a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said such a meeting was important to give credibility to the opposition.

"In order for this to make a different politically among Syrians here in the U.S. and back home, you get Jarba and President Obama in the same room," Tabler said. "Plus in order to move forward they need to be talking about these issues face to face. "

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