London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Washington granted the Syrian National Coalition “foreign mission” status on Monday, an important boost to the Western-backed main opposition umbrella group at a time when its armed wing, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), has suffered a number of setbacks against Assad forces across the country.
US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the Coalition’s offices in Washington and New York will be treated as a “foreign mission.”
Although largely symbolic, the step will formalize the relationship between the White House and the Istanbul-based Syrian opposition umbrella group.
The US State Department also announced that it will seek to provide more than 27 million US dollars of “non-lethal” assistance to the opposition group as part of Washington’s “commitment to empower the moderate Syrian opposition and bolster its efforts to assist people who need help inside Syria,” according to Harf.
“This is not tantamount to recognition of the Syrian National Coalition as the government of Syria . . . It is a reflection of our partnership with the coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” she told reporters on Monday.
The status upgrade will provide Syria’s opposition members with security and banking privileges—making fundraising easier—and facilitate its dealings with Syrian nationals in the US.
Syrian National Coalition president Ahmed Jarba, who is currently on a visit to the US, said the diplomatic upgrade represents “a blow to the legitimacy of Bashar Al-Assad.”
“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 . . . providing a diplomatic platform for the coalition to advance the interests of the Syrian people at all levels,” he said.
Non-lethal aid to Syria’s opposition has included medical support, communications equipment, food rations, and vehicles. The latest batch of nonlethal assistance will bring the total amount of non-lethal support provided by the US to 286 million dollars.
“We are also currently increasing deliveries of nonlethal assistance to commanders in the Free Syrian Army to enhance their logistical capabilities. And of course, we recognize that they need to have what they need to change the situation on the ground,” Harf said.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, the Syrian National Coalition representative in Washington Najib Al-Ghadban said: “During Jarba’s visit to Washington US officials informed opposition leaders that moderate rebel battalions will be provided with military support by the US administration.”
Ghadban also said that the coalition’s delegation visit to the US it will ask for “sophisticated weapons that shift the military balance on the ground, such as anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons.”
The FSA has witnessed a number of setbacks over the past year, with Syrian government forces gaining ground in central and southern Syria, including regaining control of the Syrian-Lebanese border region and the central city of Homs. The Syrian opposition has also come under pressure from Islamist rebel groups such as the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).