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US approves formal diplomatic status for Syrian opposition offices, boosts non-lethal aid

WASHINGTON - The Obama administration gave approval Monday for the Syrian opposition to open a formal diplomatic mission in the United States and said it would increase non-lethal assistance to the opposition by $27 million.

The steps announced by the State Department give the Syrian Opposition Council's offices in Washington and New York formal diplomatic status and boost total U.S. assistance to the opposition to $287 million since the conflict began three years ago. The moves come at a critical time in the conflict as Syrian President Bashar Assad's government has made recent battlefield gains and is planning presidential elections in June.

The administration has recognized the opposition council as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in December 2012, but its U.S. offices had been recognized only as informal liaison bureaus until Monday.

The Washington office won't be considered an embassy, or the New York office a consulate, but both are now be considered "foreign diplomatic missions" under U.S. law. The upgrade is largely symbolic, but U.S. officials said it has been a key request of the opposition as they believe it will give them greater presence and credibility with officials in Washington and among Syrian expatriates in the United States.

"It's a reflection of our partnership with the coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.

Legally, it allows the administration to assist the offices with banking and security services. The department suspended the operations of the Syrian Embassy, which represented the Assad government, in Washington in March.

The announcements came ahead of meetings this week in Washington between senior U.S. officials and Ahmad al-Jarba, the visiting president of the opposition council. Jarba is set to meet Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday.

In addition to the new $27 million in aid to the opposition council, the department also said it would step up deliveries of non-lethal assistance to moderate commanders in the Free Syrian Army. Details of that aid were not immediately clear, but previous aid shipments to opposition military commanders have included communications and computer gear, vehicles and defensive gear, such as body armour.

Jarba's visit is the first official visit by the opposition coalition leadership since it was created and the administration is hoping it will give the anti-Assad coalition a boost as faces significant challenges on the military front.

Assad's forces, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah militants and pro-government militias, have been trying to wrest as much territory as possible from the opposition ahead of the June 3 election. The United States has denounced the planned election as a "sham" and a "parody of democracy."

The conflict, which began with largely peaceful protests in March 2011, has evolved into a civil war with sectarian overtones, pitting predominantly Sunni Muslim rebels against Assad's government that is dominated by Alawites, a sect in Shiite Islam.

More than 150,000 people have been killed and millions have been displaced by the war.

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