The Syrian Opposition Council’s offices in the US will become formal diplomatic missions after receiving approval from the Obama administration on Monday. This comes ahead of high-level talks between the US and opposition leaders in Washington.
The administration first recognized the Syrian Opposition Council as the legitimate representative of Syria in December 2012, but did not suspend the Syrian embassy - representing the Assad government - until this March. The opposition offices were considered informal liaison offices until Monday’s announcement, where they will become “foreign diplomatic missions” under US law, the Associated Press reports.
"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," Ahmad al-Jarba, head of the Syrian National Coalition, said in a statement. “The new status provides a diplomatic platform for the Coalition to advance the interests of the Syrian people at all levels. This is a diplomatic blow against Assad's legitimacy and demonstrates how far the opposition has progressed.”
"It's a reflection of our partnership with the coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.
Jarba is embarking on his first official visit to Washington as the head of the SOC, CBS News reports. He will be joined by the new chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Brigadier General Abdelilah al-Bashir, his office told AFP, but State Department officials would not confirm.
The SOC president made the announcement of the change in status via Twitter.
Happy to announce that today, the US government has officially recognized our Syrian Coalition's Washington office as a Foreign Mission.
— Ahmad Jarba (@A_Jarba) May 5, 2014
The move comes as Syrian President Bashar Assad runs for reelection in June. A senior US administration official denounced the election as "a parody of democracy," AFP reports. Assad’s decision to hold the elections "rings particularly hollow given that the regime is continuing to attack and massacre the very electorate that is purporting to represent," the official said.
The formal recognition of the diplomatic missions is largely symbolic, as the two offices will not become the embassy in DC or the consulate in New York, AP reports. But the move was a key request by the Syrian opposition, who believe it will give them greater presence and credibility among Syrian expatriates in the US. It will allow the US government to assist the missions with banking and security services.
There are key differences between a foreign diplomatic mission and an embassy or consulate. People working in the missions will not be granted diplomatic immunity, nor will they be allowed access to the assets or properties that belong to the Assad regime, CBS News reports. Even with its embassies suspended, the Assad’s government is still officially recognized by the US.
During his visit, Jarba will meet with US Secretary of State John Kerry and members of the National Security Council and from the Treasury Department, according to CBS News. Al-Bashir is scheduled to meet with US officials “to discuss the supply of sophisticated weapons to the FSA to enable it to change the balance on the ground," his office told AFP.
Along with the recognition, the administration promised an additional $27 million aid to the opposition council, as well as promising to step up its non-lethal assistance to moderate commanders in the Free Syrian Army, AP reports. The additional aid will bring the total US assistance to opposition groups to $278 million, according to the Guardian.
The coalition is battling against Assad in the country’s civil war, which began with peaceful protests in March 2011. More than 150,000 people have been killed and millions more have been displaced in the three years since fighting began. Assad’s forces are backed by Lebanese Hezbollah militants and pro-government militias, and have made recent battlefield gains, AP reports. In February, a second round of peace talks between the opposition, representatives of the Assad government, the US and Russia failed to reach an agreement.