WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Monday announced enhanced diplomatic standing and $27 million in new aid for the main Syrian opposition group, part of a campaign to re-brand a coalition that’s proven ineffectual, lacking in popular support and outgunned by both government forces and Islamist rebels.
The boost to the embattled Syrian Opposition Coalition, which the U.S. government recognizes as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, recognizes the group as a “foreign mission.” It coincides with a nine-day visit to Washington intended to “reintroduce the face of the Syrian moderate opposition” to Americans and to European allies, said a senior administration official, who briefed reporters under the condition of anonymity.
But the upgrade in diplomatic standing is primarily symbolic — it does ease some banking and outreach efforts — and analysts of the Syrian conflict warned that it is little more than window dressing, with no major policy shift in the offing from the Obama administration.
Moreover, they noted, the opposition coalition remains made up of the same figures whose infighting and political divisions have infuriated American officials and Syrian constituents for years — the same faces with the same ideological, religious and personal rifts among them.
“The problems, essentially, can’t be solved because they’re part of the very fabric of this body,” said Faysal Itani, who follows the Syrian conflict closely as a fellow with the Washington-based Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
The coalition’s president, Ahmad Jarba, hailed the development in a statement on the coalition’s website. “This is a diplomatic blow against Assad’s legitimacy and demonstrates how far the opposition has progressed,” he said.
But the meetings that Jarba and his entourage have scheduled with Secretary of State John Kerry, senior White House officials and U.S. lawmakers, as well as media interviews and appearances at foreign policy think tanks, won’t appreciably change developments in Syria, where President Bashar Assad is scheduled to hold elections next month that in all likelihood will see his rule endorsed after three years of bitter civil war.
Since early in the conflict, the coalition and its predecessor, the Syrian National Coalition, as well as its semi-affiliated armed wing, the Supreme Military Council, have been overshadowed by the Assad regime as well as by the jihadist fighters who took over the armed rebellion.
One goal, the official said, is to remind people that there is a moderate voice in the debate over Syria’s future.
“They need to make sure that their part of the triangle also has awareness, namely, who is the moderate opposition? What are they all about? What is their vision? What are they up to right now?” the senior administration official said.
The push comes at a time when confusion swirls among close Syria watchers as to who is in charge of the Supreme Military Council and what role it’s playing since U.S. rebel point man Brig. Gen. Salim Idris was ousted in February. An Islamist fighting bloc has emerged as the key rebel force; extremist elements, some aligned with al-Qaida, reportedly are gaining ground in southern Syria while Assad’s forces have retaken control of many key Damascus suburbs and other population centers in central Syria.
The senior administration official acknowledged what he called the “asymmetry which exists on the ground militarily,” and he said it was an obstacle to finding a political solution to a conflict that’s killed 150,000 and displaced millions. Talks within the so-called Geneva framework, envisioned as a blueprint for Assad’s negotiated transition from power, are at a standstill.
Put more simply: Assad is winning, and there’s not much the United States can or will do about it.
“Unfortunately, it has not trended in the right direction,” the official said. “It’s extremely frustrating.”
“That doesn’t mean we throw in the towel,” the official added.
U.S. officials have gone from supporting the political opposition to ditching them as a lost cause to, now, orchestrating a grand “reintroduction.”
Itani, the analyst, said it was prudent not to read too much into the latest moves, which he said aren’t likely to translate into any serious U.S. push to shift the war in favor of the rebels.
Even the recent appearance in rebel hands of advanced U.S. weapons, such as armor-piercing BGM-71 TOW missiles, and reports that the U.S. is training Syrian rebels should be seen in context, he said.
His contacts with knowledge of the covert training program say it churns out only 100 to 200 vetted fighters a month — a rate that simply won’t result in a viable foil to either the Assad government or the Islamist extremists, whose forces number in the tens of thousands.
Such measures give credence to criticism that the administration is trying to build a moderate force where none exists, Itani said.
“Because the objective of the policy is not to assure an opposition military victory — it’s just to make sure an opposition exists — it lends itself well to fine-tuning,” Itani said.