In a diplomatic move that may help pave the way for the creation of a new Syrian government, the U.S. will recognize the Syrian Opposition Council (SOC) as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. This recognition will help pave the way for the creation of a new political structure that fill the vacuum left inside of Syria after Bashar al Assad's regime falls. The United Kingdom and France have already recognized the SOC and have begun providing direct financial assistance.
"The time of a political transition is approaching. It's approaching quickly as events on the ground move," said a senior State Department official who is in regular contact with both the SOC political opposition and with the Free Syrian Army fighters inside of Syria.
In an interview with ABC News' Barbara Walters, President Obama confirmed the move, saying: "We've made a decision that the Syrian opposition coalition is now inclusive enough, reflective and representative enough of the Syrian population that we consider them the legitimate represent of the Syrian people in opposition to Assad...and we will provide them with recognition and with that recognition comes responsibilities uh, on the part of that coalition."
The diplomatic recognition of the Syrian Opposition Council by the U.S. will most immediately bring with it much-needed humanitarian support to help the 2.5 million Syrians who have been displaced from their homes by the fighting, according to USAID and U.N. estimates.
"I think it'll help us better target aid," said USAID Foreign Disaster Assistance Director Mark Bartolini. The U.S. has already provided $200 million in aid to the Syrian crisis, $125 million of which has been delivered to those suffering inside of the country. A large focus of the new aid package will be to ramp up winterization efforts as the cold weather months come. That means giving blankets, cooking sets, mattresses and plastic sheeting to provide warmth in shelters. Many of those displaced Syrians have taken up temporary shelter inside of abandoned buildings.
"The big new opportunity is the new opposition council," said a senior U.S. official familiar with the U.S. aid package. The official acknowledged that there "is an information gap in terms of what we know" in regard to where aid is most needed inside of the country.
As part of its new role, SOC will set up an Assistance Coordination Unit that will share information with agencies like USAID and the U.N. The efforts will also empower the SOC to establish some legitimacy inside of the country particularly in areas that the Assad regime no longer controls.
"We have not been sitting by waiting for this," said the U.S. official. "From the beginning of the crisis, the President directed us to do everything that we can."
The U.S. has used covert networks of humanitarian groups, local coordinating councils, the U.N. appeal, and trusted contacts to deliver unmarked humanitarian aid. These medical supplies and food supplies do not bear USAID or U.S. government branding because of fear of interdiction of goods by hostile groups. According to USAID, U.S. assistance has treated nearly 290,000 patients in Syria and U.S.-funded field hospitals have performed over 11,350 surgeries. The official declined to indicate the size of the new U.S. financial pledge but indicated that the U.S. is by far the biggest financial donor to the Syrian crisis.
While the U.S. is prepared to give the Syrian opposition political support, it is not yet ready to provide military aid to the Free Syrian Army. However, a senior State Department official made clear that President Obama has never ruled out providing arms in the future. The official made clear that incremental support is contingent on the progress that the Syrian Opposition makes in structuring itself into what may resemble a government and the Free Syrian Army structures itself into a military command.
"For us, providing arms has to be done in a way that helps promote a political solution. And until we understand how these arms promote a political solution, we do not see how provision of arms is a good idea," said the senior State Department official. The official went on to say that he personally speaks with the Free Syrian Army fighters about U.S. expectations that they adhere to a code of conduct and how to treat prisoners.
In a further move to distinguish between those who the U.S. views as legitimate and illegitimate actors in the Syrian crisis, the U.S. designated extremist group Jubhat al Nusra as an affiliate of al Qaeda in Iraq and Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO.) The designation prohibits any material support or transactions with the group and freezes all property in the U.S. Jubhat al Nusra has not only been an effective fighting force against the Assad regime but it has also provided humanitarian support to the Syrian people.
"We are trying to strengthen the legitimate opposition, the political opposition, the Syrian-Opposition council, and legitimate political opposition forces inside Syria. We are trying to make the point that those fighting in Syria's name ought to be doing so in a manner that reflects the Syria that they want to have, not reflecting a terrorist- or al Qaeda-shaped future," explained State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland.
Fighting is still raging inside of Syria as President Bashar al Assad's regime tries to hold onto power. Senior diplomats say that Assad has not shown any interest in negotiating an exit. Last week, NATO announced that it is not considering military intervention in the nearly two-year-old conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people.