The Obama administration gave approval Monday for the Syrian opposition to open a formal diplomatic mission in Washington, on the first day of a visit to the American capital by National Coalition leader Ahmad Jarba.
The move came as an anticipated deal to see rebels exit the Old City of Homs was pushed back by another day due to logistical details, according to the governor of the province.
The steps announced by the State Department to upgrade the status of the coalition, which had been represented by an informal liaison office, and increase nonlethal assistance to the opposition by $27 million.
This boosts total U.S. assistance to $287 million since the conflict began three years ago. The administration had recognized the coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in December 2012.
The office won’t be an embassy but will now be considered a “foreign mission” under U.S. law. “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 U.S.,” Jarba said, as his delegation began arriving in Washington.
Jarba, who is scheduled to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry Thursday, welcomed the move as “a diplomatic blow against” the legitimacy of President Bashar Assad “and demonstrates how far the opposition has progressed.”
The upgrade is largely symbolic, but U.S. officials said it has been a key request of the opposition for some time as they believe it will give them greater presence and credibility with officials in Washington and among Syrian expatriates in the United States.
The State Department suspended the operations of the Syrian Embassy in Washington in March.
In addition to the new $27 million in aid to the opposition council, the department also said it would step up deliveries of nonlethal assistance to moderate commanders in the rebel Free Syrian Army. Details of that aid were not immediately clear, but previous aid shipments to opposition military commanders have included communications and computer gear, vehicles and defensive gear, such as body armor.
Jarba’s visit comes at a critical time in the conflict as Assad’s government has made recent battlefield gains and announced that it would hold presidential election in June. The United States has denounced the planned election as a “sham” and a “parody of democracy.”
Jarba will be accompanied on his eight-day trip by the new chief of staff of the FSA, Brig. Gen. Abdel-Ilah Bashir, his office said last week.
“He will meet U.S. officials to discuss the supply of sophisticated weapons to the FSA to enable it to change the balance on the ground,” his office said.
U.S. officials on a conference call with reporters refused to be drawn on the type of nonlethal aid or weapons being supplied by Washington.
Meanwhile, a deal between the government and rebels for opposition fighters to leave the Old City of Homs will be implemented in the next 48 hours, the provincial governor said.
“We will begin the application of the initiative in the coming 48 hours depending on the situation on the ground,” Homs Governor Talal Barazi told AFP.
“I hope that things will go smoothly, in which case the initiative will be completed quickly,” he added.
The agreement involves the fate of about 2,250 fighters, civilians and injured people, according to the opposition.
They have been trapped in the neighborhoods under government siege for nearly two years, and will be granted safe passage out under the accord.
“We have agreed that they will head toward Talbiseh and Dar al-Kabira,” Barazi said, referring to two rebel-held towns north of the city.
The governor said various logistical issues were being tackled.
“An appropriate route, the people who will be present at the departure and arrival points to ensure the security of the convoy, the security points on the route and the removal of the mines placed by the rebels in the Old City,” he said, referring to the challenges.
“We have to prepare properly because if this is successful, we will be able to continue in Waer,” he said.
Waer will be the only remaining rebel-held area in Homs after the evacuation of the besieged Old City and surrounding areas.
Several hundred thousand people live there, including thousands displaced from other areas.
Rebel fighters have said that the deal involves the freeing of 70 Lebanese and Iranian prisoners being held by the rebel Islamic Front alliance in the province of Aleppo, as well as the entry of aid to two Shiite pro-regime villages under rebel blockade in the same province.
Barazi denied the existence of Iranian hostages but said all initiatives between the rebels and government involved efforts to seek the release of hostages and the entry of humanitarian aid.
In rural Aleppo, fierce fighting killed at least 21 rebels and left at least 30 soldiers dead or wounded, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime group.
Government aircraft bombed three rebel-held districts in the city, including Masaken Hanano, where at least two people died, the Observatory said. The state-run SANA news agency said rockets struck in Aleppo’s residential neighborhood of Ashrafieh overnight, killing nine people and wounding several, mostly women and children. An airstrike later in the day killed at least 10 civilians in the town of Azaz, near the Turkish border.
Rebels also destroyed a government checkpoint near the Wadi Deif military base in Idlib province, activists said, causing an unspecified number of regime casualties.
In the southern province of Deraa, the Nusra Front released a rebel commander who was detained one day earlier along with a controversial FSA leader, Ahmad Naameh, the Observatory said. There was no word on the fate of Naameh, who was accused of betraying the uprising by handing over a town in Deraa to regime forces.
Naameh recently announced the formation of a “Southern Front” rebel group that would battle both the regime and Islamist extremists.