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The U.S. Upgrades the Status of Syria’s Opposition. What Does That Mean?

Though falling short of formal diplomatic recognition, the move could improve both the SNC’s standing in the capital and its communication with the White House.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

On Tuesday the U.S. granted the Washington offices of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the country’s opposition in exile and main anti-Assad umbrella group, with “foreign mission” status. Though a symbolic boost, it is still well short of diplomatic formal recognition.

The move, timed to a high-profile U.S. visit by SNC President Ahmad Jarba, coincided with the Obama administration asking Congress for an extra $27 million in nonlethal aid for the opposition, a small but symbolic fraction of the total $287 million the U.S. has given the rebels so far.

We asked Steven Heydemann, vice president for applied conflict research at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, to weigh in on the effect this week’s gestures will have on the SNC’s internal fragmentation, how it will translate on the ground, and whether it will improve both the SNC’s standing in the capital and its communication with the White House.

Syria Deeply: What are the immediate advantages of the designation?

Steven Heydemann: The office has been open and functioning for months now. [The new distinction] will improve the access of the SNC’s DC staff and give them access to channels of communication and opportunities for engagement with the administration that they wouldn’t have had before.

One of most positive outcomes could be that it could discipline the State Department itself in how it works with the SNC. There’s an argument that the fragmentation of the SNC and the way the U.S. has engaged with [those fragments] have not helped in overcoming said fragmentation. The U.S. has continued to reach out to dissident groups within the opposition and communicate with a wide range of opposition networks, and that has not helped their efforts to consolidate as the representative body of the Syrian people. If this [designation] means that the State Department must now engage with the Syrian opposition more narrowly through the SNC, that could be a significant change.

Syria Deeply: Will the designation relegitimize the SNC as the main opposition body?

Heydemann: This is a step in the right direction, but it’s important to parse the initial statements that said the opposition had been given foreign ministry status. You need to pay a great deal of attention to the distinction between diplomatic recognition and the status extended to the SNC. It’s comparable to the status extended to the PLO many years before it became an officially recognized political party in Palestine. It falls well short of the status that the SNC would like. It doesn’t go all that far in challenging the legitimacy and sovereignty of the Assad regime, which the U.S. continues to recognize [as Syria’s governing body]. But you can certainly identify it as a meaningful and useful step.

Syria Deeply: Was this show of support expected?

Heydemann: It was. There have been a series of events that made it possible for Jarba to make this visit.

One was the performance of the SNC at the Geneva [peace] talks [in January] and the broad consensus here in Washington that they performed effectively, more so than anticipated. And a sense that following it, even though the talks themselves weren’t a success, that the U.S. needed to take a step in response to that performance.

The second was a concern on the Obama administration’s part following the collapse of the Geneva talks that it needed additional leverage in its ongoing efforts to move this conflict to a negotiated settlement, and one way is to ratchet up the pressure on the regime by helping the opposition. This, along with the increase in aid announced by Secretary of State John Kerry and sanctions placed on key Syrian figures, is part of the White House gaining leverage post-Geneva.

The third is that the administration was finally prepared to give the SNC the level of meaning that it sought as justification for a visit to DC. There was a clear sense on the opposition side that unless it was received at the highest levels, a visit to the U.S. would not be productive for the leadership of the SNC. Jarba was insistent that if he came, he would meet with President Obama, and that looks like it will happen. If you put those three pieces together, you have the context for the series of Syria policies announced by the administration this past week.

Syria Deeply: What will be the overall impact on the SNC?

Heydemann: I hope that this will reinforce the coherence of the opposition and the imperative among factions within the SNC to overcome their internal rivalries and divisions and cohere around a more stable leadership. I think the U.S. and other governments who support the opposition continue to be somewhat frustrated that it is internally fragmented and out of touch with what’s happened on the ground. But the SNC has been making steady progress there, and I’d like to think this could accelerate that progress.

Whether this will play well on the ground in Syria depends on what follows the visit and whether the SNC can point to any demonstrable impact on events on the ground. But the cynicism that Syrians tend to have about the U.S. is not likely to be changed as a result of Jarba’s visit.

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