US elevates 'status' of Syrian opposition. Is it everything it wanted?

The State Department granted 'foreign mission' status to the US offices of the moderate Syrian opposition, modest consolation for not providing the arms it wants for rebel fighters. 

Courtesy of the Syrian National Coalition Media Office/AP
Ahmad al-Jarba (l.), president of the delegation of the Syrian National Coalition, meets with rebel leaders during a rare visit to the front lines where the rebels are fighting against the Syrian government troops in the coastal province of Latakia, Syria, Tuesday April 1, 2014.

As consolation prizes go, it’s quite modest. And that says a lot.

With the leadership of Syria’s moderate opposition in the United States this week, the State Department has granted the group’s Washington and New York offices official “foreign mission” status.

The diplomatic promotion is not exactly the more sophisticated arms the Syrian opposition would like the US to provide to moderate rebel fighters, and it’s a far cry from recognition of the coalition as Syria’s legitimate government.

But the designation, which the US says is an upgrade in the coalition’s “status,” does offer the troubled opposition new cachet – even as it hints at the uneasy relationship the US continues to have with the opposition it has supported during the three years of the Syrian conflict.

In announcing the new “foreign mission” status Monday, State Department officials were hard-pressed to explain to journalists just what new privileges the upgrade grants. Later in the day, spokeswoman Marie Harf got back to reporters with the information that “foreign mission” status bestows certain banking privileges and will allow the US to offer the group security assistance in the US.

The designation will not grant the opposition access to Syria’s shuttered embassy in Washington, and it does not result in diplomatic immunity for officials at its two US offices, Ms. Harf said. The coalition, for its part, is touting the designation as evidence of its growing legitimacy – which it says will also be on full view when its president, Ahmad al-Jarba, meets this week with Secretary of State John Kerry, national security adviser Susan Rice, and members of Congress.

Coalition representatives are hopeful that President Obama will make a stop at Mr. Jarba’s White House meeting. 

Clearly the US would like to see the new status help the opposition coalition burnish its image among Syrians. US officials say the coalition is doing a better job of organizing and providing services in what it calls the “liberated” areas of Syria – zones controlled by the rebels rather than the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But the coalition, made up of exiled opposition leaders who rarely if ever step inside Syria, is generally held in low esteem among the country’s traumatized and demoralized population, many Syria experts who have visited recently say. Syria’s war has claimed at least 150,000 lives and has displaced about a third of the country’s 23 million people – with several million of the displaced now refugees in neighboring countries.

In making the “foreign mission” designation Monday, the US announced an additional $27 million in “non-lethal” aid to the opposition, bringing the US total to $287 million. Dwarfing that sum is the $1.7 billion in humanitarian assistance the US has provided to Syrians, both inside and outside the country.

Still, the opposition continues to make clear that what really tops its wish list with the US are the more sophisticated weapons it would like the US to provide to Syria’s moderate rebel groups. The head of the opposition’s Supreme Military Council, Brig. Gen. Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir, is accompanying Jarba on his US visit and is expected to press his request for higher-powered weaponry, including shoulder-fired or other surface-to-air missiles. Those weapons could help the opposition fight off the Assad forces that continue to bombard rebels and civilian populations from fighter jets and helicopters.

The US has recently increased its CIA-run covert program providing training and some small arms to vetted rebel groups. But despite calls from some in Congress for the US to drop its objections to providing weaponry that could give the rebels a fighting chance against Assad, the administration appears to be holding fast.

Why? The administration worries that missiles capable of bringing down a commercial airliner could fall into the hands of that part of the insurgency that seems to be prospering: Syria’s Islamist extremist militant groups, some of which have pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda.

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