The Obama administration has designated the offices of the Syrian Opposition Coalition a “foreign mission” in this country, a category that gives the group a symbolic boost in status but that falls well short of diplomatic recognition as a government.
The designation, announced Monday, was timed to coincide with a visit to Washington by coalition President Ahmad al-Jarba this week. The administration also will ask Congress to provide an additional $27 million in nonlethal aid to the Syrian political opposition, bringing the U.S. total to $287 million.
The foreign mission label gives the coalition additional banking privileges in this country and allows the administration to assist it with certain security functions. More important, said Jarba adviser Rime Allaf, it’s a “clear sign” of legitimacy from the United States.
But the administration has no plans to give the coalition what it says it wants — a significant increase in the amount and sophistication of U.S. weapons aid, and possible U.S. military assistance in carving out a protected rebel zone inside Syria.
In recent months, the United States has worked to bring a new level of coordination to countries aiding the rebel fighters seeking to unseat President Bashar al-
Assad. New agreements have been struck among Western and Persian Gulf allies on which groups of fighters should receive outside aid and on how to avoid sophisticated weapons falling into the hands of rebel fighters who are al-Qaeda-linked extremists.
The administration has also stepped up its efforts to bring cohesion to the fractious political opposition represented in part by the coalition, even as Jarba has moved to consolidate his standing with a series of foreign visits.
Despite high-level U.S. attention, there has been little, if any, progress in shifting the balance of power on the ground toward the opposition.
“I don’t think there’s any single issue that is currently meriting as much debate — senior policy-level discussion and that kind of thing — than Syria,” said a senior administration official provided by the State Department to brief reporters, on the condition of anonymity, about the Jarba visit.
“It’s a very, very serious situation,” the official said. “Unfortunately, it has not trended in the right direction. It’s extremely frustrating.”
In recent months, Assad’s
Russian-armed and Iranian-backed military has pummeled civilians and rebel fighters, using airstrikes and artillery, chemical weapons and, most recently, air-dropped “barrel bombs.” An estimated 150,000 people have been killed and more than a third of Syria’s population of 25 million has been displaced.
Russia’s Kommersant newspaper reported Monday that nine Yakovlev Yak-130 trainer-fighter jets, purchased by Syria under a $550 million 2011 contract for 36 of the planes, would be shipped to Syria this year. The paper said that Syria had transferred an initial payment of $100 million last year.
The United States and its European allies, while insisting that Assad step down, have been reluctant to use their armed forces to tip the balance in the opposition’s favor or to provide moderate or secular rebel fighters with a steady supply of weapons. In what has become a sectarian struggle, money from Sunni monarchies in the gulf has flowed to Sunni extremist groups — including some linked with al-Qaeda — that are willing to battle Assad’s government, which is dominated by Alawites, a branch of Shiite Islam.
The fighting has left hundreds of thousands of civilians in besieged cities without regular access to food, water or medical care, as United Nations aid coordinators have been hobbled by dangerous conditions or an unwillingness to override the Syrian government’s insistence that all aid flow through its bureaucracy.
As the fighting has continued, the United States and its allies have tried to establish a viable political leadership for the opposition and to engage the government in negotiations over a transition of power that have so far been unsuccessful. Assad plans to run in elections he has scheduled for next month.
Meanwhile, opposition political and military leaders, most of whom remain outside the country except for brief visits, have failed to build broad support. “The disconnect . . . is still very strong,” said Brian Katulis, a Middle East expert at the Center for American Progress who recently visited the region. The fighters, he said, express disdain for both the coalition and the U.S.-backed Supreme Military Council, including Brig. Gen. Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir, the new chief of staff, who will be part of Jarba’s Washington delegation.
Najib Ghadbian, the coalition’s permanent representative in the United States, said the coalition hopes for a “drop-by” by President Obama during a scheduled meeting with national security adviser Susan E. Rice. Jarba also is to meet with Secretary of State John F. Kerry and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
“We hope the United States would use the visit to announce some shifts” in its military, humanitarian and political policies, Ghadbian said in an interview. On the political front, the “foreign mission” designation would seem to have achieved one of those goals. Covering the coalition’s suite of offices on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington and an office in New York, the designation will “facilitate their outreach to the Syrian diaspora in the United States,” the State Department said.
The United States technically retains diplomatic relations with Syria, but it ordered its embassy here closed in March. Operations at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus were suspended in February 2012.
Although the amount of humanitarian aid has steadily increased, Valerie Amos, the U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, told the U.N. Security Council last week that the civilian crisis has steadily worsened and blamed “all parties” for failing to allow humanitarian aid deliveries. Although a new council resolution authorizes direct “cross-border” delivery of aid, the U.N. holds that international law still requires Syrian government approval.
Military assistance remains the most problematic request. The United States has stepped up its deliveries of training for rebel fighters and the delivery of small arms, administered as a covert operation by the CIA. In recent months, a small number of U.S. TOW antitank missiles have been sent to vetted rebel moderates.
But the administration has refused persistent rebel requests to approve shipments to the opposition fighters of portable surface-to-air missiles that could be used to shoot down government aircraft.