On May 14, Ahmad al-Jarba, who is the leader of Syria’s main Western- and Gulf-backed political opposition body, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, was received at the White House.
As the first meeting of a Syrian opposition leader with President Barack Obama, the reception was clearly intended to signal a stiffening of U.S. support for the Syrian opposition, after the failure of the Geneva II peace conference and as punishment for Bashar al-Assad’s decision to run for a third presidential term on June 3, under terms guaranteeing him full control over the outcome.
Long road to the White House
The path towards U.S. recognition of the Syrian opposition has been long and tortuous, with Washington’s desire to bolster U.S.-friendly and politically pragmatic forces tempered by its lack of confidence in the exile opposition’s ability to transform into a new government and sway rebels inside Syria.
The creation of the Turkey/Qatar-backed Syrian National Council (SNC) in September-October 2011 was encouraged by the United States but not followed by formal diplomatic recognition. Seeking to lead from behind, the United States instead gradually tightened its affiliation with the SNC through a series of ad hoc pro-opposition conferences drawn together by Washington—the so-called ”Friends of Syria” meetings that began in spring 2012.
At the first Friends of Syria meeting in Tunis on February 24, 2012, the SNC was recognized as ”a legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change,” a formula which meant nothing much at all. On April 1 of that year, a follow-up meeting of the Friends of Syria in Istanbul promoted the SNC to ”a legitimate representative of all Syrians and the umbrella organization under which Syrian opposition groups are gathering.” This phrasing indicated that the SNC would henceforth be considered the sole representative of the Syrian opposition, but it fell far short of what the SNC really wanted: recognition as the sole legitimate representative of Syria's people.
In autumn 2012, the United States suddenly withdrew its backing for the SNC and joined with Qatar and other nations to force the reluctant SNC leaders to join a new and supposedly more broadly based opposition body—namely the National Coalition, which was declared in Doha on November 11, 2012. A month later, President Obama finally extended his formal blessing to the group, calling it a ”well-organized-enough coalition” to be recognized as ”the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.” And, a year and a half later, National Coalition President Ahmad Jarba has now finally had a photo-op with Obama himself.
Diplomatic upgrades and sanctions
Jarba’s visit to Washington was accompanied by a slew of minor support measures, both tangible and purely symbolic. On March 18, the U.S. government shut down President Assad's embassy in Washington and expelled all remaining diplomatic personnel, although their activity was at that point already greatly restricted.
In early May, the Washington office of Prime Minister Ahmad Touma’s interim government—which had been elected in November 2013 by the National Coalition—was upgraded to a formal diplomatic mission, thereby giving the exile government’s U.S. representative Najib Ghadbian (a conservative intellectual and a professor at the University of Arkansas) an official status for the first time.
U.S. allies in the Friends of Syria core group (known as "the London Eleven") are following suit with their own diplomatic upgrades. The United Kingdom raised the status of the London opposition office headed by Walid Saffour (a Muslim Brotherhood-aligned human rights activist) on May 15. A week later, the government of France granted the Paris office of Mondher Makhous (son of a former Syrian foreign minister and one of the few Alawites in the exile opposition) an upgraded diplomatic status as well as a building to operate out of; French President François Hollande also reportedly promised to grant Makhous full diplomatic rights as ambassador of Syria, although he didn't specify a date for doing so.
Still not complete recognition
These were limited steps, calculated to give the opposition a moral boost and send a political signal to the governments of Damascus, Teheran, and Moscow, rather than to tie the hands of future administrations in Washington, London, or Paris.
In a May 5 background briefing to the press, the Obama administration conceded that the diplomatic upgrade would not in fact bring Professor Ghadbian's Washington office up to full embassy status. Nor was it a question of handing over the Assad government’s Washington property to the opposition or of formally severing all ties to Damascus, however strained they may be in practice; the Touma government’s representatives in Washington will not even receive diplomatic immunity.
(Reading between the lines, it seems likely that the anonymous ”senior administration official” explaining these measures was Daniel Rubinstein, the new U.S. ambassador to Syria, who succeeded Robert Ford in March of this year.)
Money and guns
Of course, fancier calling cards for the West's favorite Syrian exiles isn’t going to bring Assad to his knees, or even to the negotiating table—and Obama knows that. These diplomatic maneuvers play out on the surface of Syrian opposition politics, but the real U.S. commitment to the opposition is be better measured by the degree of American support for the rebellion inside Syria. As pleasant as the exiles may be to deal with in conference rooms, and regardless of the role they may play in future negotiations, the armed fighters and humanitarian support missions within Syria's borders are the only segments of the opposition that truly matter today.
In an announcement timed for the diplomatic upgrade, the United States did announce another $27 million in nonlethal support to the Syrian opposition, for a total of $287 million spent so far. This money will go to both political, humanitarian, and military groups, in order to increase the National Coalition's influence on the ground. Days later, Obama slapped sanctions on a new batch of Syrian officials and institutions, as well as on a Russian bank involved in financing the Assad government.
More importantly, however, Jarba was accompanied to Washington by the newly appointed head of the Free Syrian Army’s General Staff, Brigadier-General Abdel-Ilah al-Bashir al-Noeimi. Although the Free Syrian Army head wasn't allowed to sit in on the meeting with Obama, it's worth noting that American-manufactured anti-tank missiles have simultaneously begun to arrive to selected Free Syrian Army-aligned guerrilla factions inside Syria, many of them Qatari-backed.
While the missiles may come from e.g. Saudi or Turkish stockpiles, and regardless of how involved U.S. intelligence officers are in the actual logistics chain, it’s almost certain that the White House has signed off on the decision to release American weaponry onto the battlefield. So far, only a limited numbers of missiles has been provided, but that in itself is significant—because may simply be a test-run for more substantial shipments to come, if this batch can be distributed and deployed without mishap.