WASHINGTON — The head of the Syrian opposition says that he will ask the Obama administration to provide anti-aircraft missiles and will try to convince U.S. officials that the weapons would not fall into the wrong hands.
In an interview Tuesday night, Ahmad Assi al-Jarba, president of the opposition coalition, also confirmed reports that Syrian rebels had received American TOW anti-tank missiles and said the shipment had enabled the opposition to demonstrate that it was able to use and maintain control of advanced U.S. weaponry.
Jarba, who is visiting Washington for the first time, plans to meet with a senior Pentagon official, leading members of Congress and Secretary of State John Kerry. A White House official said President Barack Obama was expected to see him.
In an effort to present a unified front to the Americans, Jarba is accompanied by Brig. Gen. Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir, the new leader of the military wing of the Syrian opposition.
The trip came as President Bashar Assad of Syria appears to have gained the upper hand in the civil war and Obama has continued to express wariness about becoming more deeply involved. Administration officials and members of Congress in both parties have raised questions about the effectiveness of the Syrian opposition and whether it adequately represents the rebels who are doing the brunt of the fighting.
The opposition has long pressed for anti-aircraft weapons to blunt the government’s advantage in the air, but U.S. officials have been concerned that the weapons might fall into the hands of extremists.
Jarba said that the missiles would be given only to fighters known to U.S. officials.
“We have a number of fighters who are elite and who are trained and who are trusted, and our friends know who they are,” Jarba said.
Jarba used a speech today at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington to reintroduce himself to the American public, portraying himself as a moderate who represented a viable alternative to al-Qaeda-linked militants and Assad.
“There is a misperception among public opinion,” he said. “This may be a shortcoming on our part.”
Jarba said in the speech that he had attended a Protestant school as a child in Syria and that his group was prepared for a negotiated solution that would protect the rights of minorities but would not include a role for Assad.
On Monday, the State Department said that it was upgrading the opposition’s diplomatic status and promised an additional $27 million in nonlethal assistance.
Jarba also sought to characterize the current evacuation of the central city of Homs as a temporary setback that was necessary to protect the remaining civilians.
“In all battles, you have rhythms,” he added, insisting that the opposition would eventually “gain back the city.”
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