The US has granted the Syrian main opposition's US offices diplomatic status ahead of a visit by the head of the Syrian National Coalition, Ahmad al-Jarba. Is this more than a symbolic gesture?
The decision to recognize main opposition group Syrian National Coalition as a diplomatic foreign mission came ahead of a visit of the bloc's president Ahmad al-Jarba. Whether the move to grant the Syrian opposition's US offices in Washington and New York diplomatic status will "empower the moderate Syrian opposition" remains to be seen, admits State Department spokeswoman Marie Haerf.
According to Celina Realuyo, a Mideast expert with the National Defence University, this move certainly marks a turning point. "The opposition has been seeking official status in Washington to legitimize its cause for over a year," she told DW.
Several different leaders have claimed to be the head of the opposition, making it difficult to determine who speaks on behalf of the Syrian opposition, according to Realuyo. "But this is clearly a new step that gives them more status and a better way of organizing themselves when they come to Washington," she said.
No diplomatic recognition
Secretary of State John Kerry has downplayed the offices' new status as foreign diplomatic missions. "We have previously said that they are the legitimate representative but we have not moved to create a diplomatic situation, to recognize them," he said.
Ultimately, the US must also consider other options, says Anthony Cordesman, a Mideast expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). "If he [John Kerry] wants to give moderates any kind of real leverage, he has to take the risk that he has refused to take throughout this and that is to give them the kind of weapons that would at least give them some chances to success," he said.
The US aid budget for Syria, raised by $27 million (19.4 million euros), is earmarked entirely for "non-deadly weapons".
"We are hopeful that we can find a way forward that deals with this extraordinary violence that is literally destroying Syria," Kerry said at a news conference.
Cordesman is not convinced. "If it is simply a set of political action without some kind of impact on the military situation, this is likely to be little more than another exercise in political cosmetics," he said.
It is also unclear whether other states, including the EU, would follow the US example, according to Cordesman. It is just as unclear whether the various opposition groups in the Syrian war would heed the US decision and place themselves under the command of the Syrian National Coalition.
In reality, Bashar al-Assad's continued military success in the bloody Syrian civil war confronts a fragmented opposition, while radical Islamic opposition groups gain strength at the expense of moderate forces like the Syrian National Coalition.
When their leader Ahmad al-Jarba meets in Washington with the Secretary of State this week and possibly even with President Barack Obama, the officials will need to take a hard look at Syrian reality. The future includes Assad, according to Realuyo. "There is no way to remove him unless you take pretty aggressive military action, which none of the actors are necessarily willing to do," she said.
Happy end unlikely
But given the excessive violence, "it isn't clear that accepting Assad will work," Cordesman said. "Accepting him on any terms would require Assad to compromise and move forward in areas ranging from humanitarian treatment of his own people to some kinds of modernization and reforms within Syria - all of which he has systematically refused to do since the beginning of the war."
The situation is increasingly explosive as the civil war drags on, Realuyo warns. "What you see in Syria is almost like in Iraq in terms of ungoverned space where armed groups are using violence and terrorism against innocent populations," she said, adding that some analysts say there are more foreign fighters in Syria than they were at the height of war with al Qaeda in Iraq.
Despite the months of hesitation, the situation remains an utter mess and Washington has little choice, according to Cordesman. "Giving the best moderate group limited support to see whether this produces productive results is a fairly low cost US option," he said. "But there is no way that anyone at this point can look at Syria and say that this civil war is going to have a happy ending."