WASHINGTON: In a boost to the Syrian opposition, Washington has recognized its offices in the United States as diplomatic missions, US officials said Monday, as the movement's chief prepares for high-level talks here.
Ahead of the first official visit by the head of the Syrian National Coalition, Ahmad Jarba, the move aims "to empower the Syrian moderate opposition," a senior US administration figure told reporters.
Washington, which is already the largest single donor of humanitarian aid to Syrian people caught in the three-year conflict, is boosting its non-lethal support and speeding up military deliveries to what it sees as moderate rebels, those 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, as his delegation began arriving in Washington.
He welcomed the move as "a diplomatic blow against" the legitimacy of President Bashar al-Assad "and demonstrates how far the opposition has progressed."
Jarba will be accompanied on his eight-day trip to the United States 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 on a conference call with reporters refused to be drawn on the type of non-lethal aid or weapons being supplied by Washington.
But the senior official acknowledged that there was "an asymmetry militarily" between the opposition rebels and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad they are fighting to overthrow.
The move to recognize the Syrian Opposition Coalition offices, which will not give the staff diplomatic immunity, comes after a peace process known as Geneva II collapsed in February amid bitter recriminations.
The US along with many EU allies recognized the Syrian coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in late 2012.
Washington in March 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 American people" and is something that the coalition had been calling for, the US official said.
A further $27 million in new non-lethal support is being unveiled taking the total in such aid to $287 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.
"The asymmetry that 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 US administration official said.
But "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 underway."
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 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 is purporting to represent," he said.