WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration gave approval Monday for the Syrian opposition to open a formal diplomatic mission in Washington and said it would increase non-lethal assistance to the opposition by $27 million.
The steps announced by the State Department upgrade the status of the Syrian Opposition Council, which had been represented by an informal liaison office, and boosts total U.S. assistance to $287 million since the conflict began three years ago. The administration had recognized the council 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. 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.
The announcements come ahead of meetings this week in Washington between senior U.S. officials and Ahmad al-Jarba, the visiting president of the opposition council. Jarba is set to meet Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday.
In addition to the new $27 million in aid to the opposition council, the department also said it would step up deliveries of non-lethal assistance to moderate commanders in the 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 to Washington comes at a critical time in the conflict as Syrian President Bashar Assad's government has made recent battlefield gains and announced that it would hold presidential elections in June.
Assad's forces, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah militants and pro-government militias, have been trying to wrest as much territory as possible from the opposition ahead of the June 3 election. The United States has denounced the planned election as a "sham" and a "parody of democracy."
The conflict, which began with largely peaceful protests in March 2011, has evolved into a civil war with sectarian overtones, pitting predominantly Sunni Muslim rebels against Assad's government that is dominated by Alawites, a sect in Shiite Islam.
More than 150,000 people have been killed and millions have been displaced by the war.