U.S. greenlights diplomatic mission for Syrian opposition

Syrians opposed to President Bashar al-Assad hold a large pre-Baath Syrian flag as they gather in front of the White House in Washington on March 15, 2014 during a protest to mark the third anniversary of the start of the conflict in Syria.

The Obama administration granted approval Monday for the Western-backed Syrian rebels to open a formal diplomatic mission in Washington.

The increased status is something that the Syrian Opposition Council (SOC) has long requested particularly since Washington continues to maintain diplomatic ties with the Syrian Arab Republic, the government led by Bashar al Assad who the rebels are seeking to overthrow. The U.S. will also increase non-lethal aid to the SOC by $27 million dollars and increase deliveries to commanders in the Free Syrian Army to enhance their "logistical capabilities."

The diplomatic change came as SOC President Ahmed Jarba begins his first official visit to Washington. He was the first to announce the diplomatic upgrade and did so via his twitter account. "Happy to announce that today, the US government has officially recognized our Syrian Coalition's Washington office as a Foreign Mission."

State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf said that by doing so the U.S. is "strengthening our ties with the Syrian opposition" and indicated that the U.S. will announce additional measures to support the coalition and members of the moderate armed opposition.

During a background briefing with reporters, a senior State Department official said the Obama administration has recently increased attention to the Syrian conflict from what was described as an already "very high volume and level of attention." The official also noted that there was a lack of awareness among the American public as to who the Syrian rebels are and indicated that Jarba's visit was an attempt to make that public introduction. The official provided detail on condition of anonymity.

By granting "Foreign Missions" status under U.S. law, the informal offices of the SOC in New York and Washington are now considered diplomatic outposts for the rebel governing body. While this is largely an administrative change, Harf said it will formally assist the SOC in getting banking and security services for their D.C. and New York-based offices. She also indicated that it will help the SOC fundraise and "facilitate outreach with the diaspora in an increased way."

A U.S. official acknowledged that this was largely an "administrative" change that the rebels had long sought since the U.S. first recognized them as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people in December of 2012. The classification is short of granting status as a government. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) enjoys a similar status in the U.S.

In the case of the SOC, the classification stops short of granting their diplomats immunity from prosecution under U.S. law. It also does not allow them to have access to the assets or properties that belong to the Assad regime.

Despite the administration's calls for Assad to step down and claims that he's lost "legitimacy" to govern, the U.S. has not severed diplomatic ties with the Syrian government. However, Syrian diplomats were told to suspend operations and vacate the Syrian Embassy and diplomatic missions in the U.S. by the end of March.

During Jarba's visit to Washington this week, he'll meet with Secretary of State John Kerry as well as members of the National Security Council and Treasury. He is accompanied by members of the moderate armed opposition. The State Department would not confirm that the head of the armed wing of the Syrian rebels, the Western-backed Supreme Military Council (SMC), General Bashir will be in the delegation.

  • Margaret Brennan

    Principally assigned to the State Department, Margaret Brennan also serves as a CBS News general assignment correspondent based in Washington, D.C.