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US grants diplomatic status to Syrian opposition

US move to recognize Syrian opposition coalition offices will facilitate banking services and comes amid a further £15 million in US aid for new non-lethal support
The symbolic move came ahead of a visit to the US by Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Jarba (AFP)

Washington Monday granted the US offices of the Syrian opposition diplomatic status as the rebels' political leader arrives to plead for arms to help end the three-year civil war.

A delegation led by Ahmad Jarba, head of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), began arriving Sunday ahead of high-level talks this week with Secretary of State John Kerry and US National Security Advisor Susan Rice on his first official visit to the US since the SNC was set up in 2012.

The upgraded status of the opposition coalition’s offices will allow the US to formally facilitate banking and security services for the group, and further assist the coalition’s efforts to reach out to the Syrian diaspora in the US.

The announcement follows the Obama administration’s decision to suspend operations at the Syrian Embassy in Washington, along with regional offices in the US states of Texas and Michigan, last March.

“As we take these steps and continue our dialogue this week with the SOC, we will look at what more we can do and also what our international partners can do to support the moderate opposition,” said State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf.

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In a largely symbolic move, the US now recognizes the coalition's representative offices in Washington and New York as "foreign missions under the Foreign Missions Act."

Washington, already the largest single donor of some £1 billion in humanitarian aid to the Syrian people, is also boosting its non-lethal support and speeding up military deliveries to what it sees as moderate rebels, now fighting both regime forces and the militant groups flooding onto the battlefield.

"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 US," Jarba said.

He welcomed the move as "a diplomatic blow against" the legitimacy of President Bashar al-Assad.

Jarba will be accompanied on his eight-day trip by the new chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Brigadier General Abdelilah al-Bashir, his office said last week.

"He will meet US officials to discuss the supply of sophisticated weapons to the FSA to enable it to change the balance on the ground," his office said.

US officials refused to be drawn on the type of non-lethal aid or weapons being supplied by Washington.

But a senior administration official acknowledged there was "an asymmetry militarily" between the opposition rebels and the Assad regime.

'Reaching out'

The move to recognize the opposition coalition offices, which will not give the staff diplomatic immunity, comes after a peace process known as Geneva II collapsed in February.

The US, along with many EU allies, recognized the Syrian coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in late 2012.

In March, Washington shuttered the Syrian embassy in the US capital, prompting an angry response from Damascus.

Monday's move will "facilitate" the work of the Syrian opposition in "reaching out to the Syrian diaspora" and is something that the coalition had been calling for, Harf said. She acknowledged that it did not recognize the opposition as "the government of Syria." But she said the enhanced status would enable them to operate as a diplomatic entity in the US and assist with their banking and security services.

A further £15 million in new non-lethal support is being unveiled taking the total in such aid to £169 million, which in the past has included such things as communications equipment, night-goggles, medical supplies and ready-to-eat meals.

Rebels recently disclosed the existence of a pilot program under which a "Western source" supplied them with 20 US-made TOW anti-tank missiles, with the promise of more if they were used effectively.

'Elections parody'

However, the senior administration official said, "Whoever thinks there will a sustainable and decisive military solution to this is deluding themselves."

He admitted though that "the current asymmetry does not provide the calculus to get that kind of serious, negotiated political process under way."

The US and its allies were trying to find "various ways to strengthen the opposition and to try to bring increased pressure of various types on the Assad regime," he insisted.

"Of course we recognize that they need to have what they need to change the situation on the ground."

He also denounced as "a parody of democracy" presidential elections being held next month in which Assad is running for another term, amid a brutal civil war that has killed more than 150,000 people since March 2011 and made millions homeless.

The move "rings particularly hollow given that the regime is continuing to attack and massacre the very electorate that it is purporting to represent," he said.

Syria has been in the throes of a conflict that is now going into its fourth year with neither the opposition nor the Syrian government looking like it has the definitive edge. Still, the forces of Assad have made significant gains on the battlefield, recapturing territory along Syria’s border with Lebanon, which eliminated a key transit route for the opposition.

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