Syrian opposition seeks military and profile boost in Washington

Syrian National Coalition leader Ahmad Jarba presses for weaponry to counter Assad regime's airstrikes.
Senators Bob Corker, left, and Robert Menendez, right, of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with the Syrian National Coalition president Ahmad Jarba in Washington on May 7, 2014. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
Senators Bob Corker, left, and Robert Menendez, right, of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with the Syrian National Coalition president Ahmad Jarba in Washington on May 7, 2014. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

WASHINGTON // The Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Jarba pleaded in the US capital on Wednesday for more powerful weapons to fight the regime of Bashar Al Assad and effect a political transition.

Mr Jarba, on his first official visit to Washington, said opposition forces needed “efficient weapons to face these attacks including air raids, so we can change the balance of power on the ground”.

“This would allow for a political solution,” he told the US Institute of Peace think tank on the first day of his visit.

In another sign of the US administration’s attempts to bolster the credibility of Syria’s western-backed political opposition, a White House official said President Barack Obama was expected to meet Mr Jarba before the Syrian delegation leaves on May 14. It would be Mr Obama’s first meeting with the president of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC).

Ahead of Mr Jarba’s visit, the United States on Monday recognised the SNC’s offices in Washington and New York as official foreign missions.

Though the designation does not mean that the coalition mission will be considered Syria’s embassy – which was shuttered last month – or that coalition officials will have diplomatic immunity, the opposition has long pushed for the status in the hope that it will confer legitimacy with US officials as well as a higher profile in outreach efforts to Syrian Americans and the broader US public.

Mr Jarba will also try to convince Congress that supporting the opposition is in the interest of national security.

Mr Jarba’s visit comes at a time of growing concern in the White House that Syria is becoming a haven for Islamist extremists and that there is no hope for a political transition to end the war.

“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,” a senior administration official said.

It is not clear whether this concern will lead to a new strategy aimed at forcing the regime to take part in peace talks and increasing the coalition’s capacity for governance, or whether more incremental, mostly symbolic moves are made.

Frederic Hof, a former US ambassador to Syria, said it was an open question whether diplomatic recognition of the SNC was “a one-off gesture” or whether “the US is prepared to take the lead in helping this coalition go beyond being a collection of exiles to the point where it actually has a role in coordinating the local councils [in rebel-held territory] in providing alternative governance inside Syria”.

Mr Jarba told the think tank on Wednesday that the supply of ­anti-aircraft weapons was crucial to establishing governance in rebel-held territory, saying airstrikes that include the use of devastating barrel bombs were preventing the building of an alternative state.

Just as many western and Arab backers have been frustrated by the opposition’s sometimes debilitating internal rivalries and divisions, many rebels and civilians inside Syria have also been disdainful of the coalition’s leaders based outside the country as the war has continued, killing more than 150,000 people and displacing millions.

Mr Hof said it was crucial for the opposition to increase its work on the ground, with the local committees struggling to provide an alternative to the Islamist extremists who control large patches of territory.

“Follow-up will determine whether [recognising the coalition as a foreign mission] is a useful step or a useless empty gesture,” he said.

Delegation members will come to Capitol Hill with the message that they are “a credible alternative to the Assad regime and have the capability and reliability to be a strategic partner with the US in fighting Al Qaeda in Syria and ensuring that it does not become a terror haven, and in countering Iran’s Revolutionary Guard-trained Shia extremist militias”, said Oubai Shahbandar, an adviser to the opposition in Washington.

With mid-term election season already seizing Washington, the opposition could find an eager audience, with Republicans hoping to paint Mr Obama, and by association Democrats, as endangering America by not doing enough in Syria, and with some Democrats seeking to distance themselves from the president’s policies.

If the coalition can show “in a bona fide way that it’s increasing its penetration inside of the country, I think that’s something that might work”, said Andrew Tabler, a Syria analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Otherwise it’s going to be a little bit hard. The question’s going to come up again: Well, who is this opposition? What are they actually doing?”

* With reporting by Agence France-Presse and Bloomberg News

Published: May 8, 2014 04:00 AM


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