Syrian Opposition Leader To Meet With White House Official

Key Syrian opposition leader Ahmed al-Jarba is expected at the White House on Tuesday to meet with National Security Advisor Susan Rice. The Syrian civil war has been raging for more than three years.

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You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. A Syrian opposition leader is expected at the White House today. Is name is Ahmed Al-Jarba. He is supposed to meet with National Security Advisor Susan Rice. He's been in Washington for some days now seeking American support for his side in Syria's civil war. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman spoke with Al-Jarba and he's in our studios. Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And this is a man who's referred to as the president of the Syrian opposition. How does he fit in among the many, many opposition groups?

BOWMAN: Well, Steve, Al-Jarba is president of the largest political opposition organization in Syria. It's basically an umbrella group for many of the groups anti-Assad political factions. And the challenge here is to bring all these groups together and have a coordinated fighting and political strategy. But the problem is some of the other groups who are doing a lot of the fighting now have ties to Al-Qaida and some of those groups are actually growing in strength.

So for the Obama administration, the question is who do they deal with? And they picked Al-Jarba's group.

INSKEEP: And one of our editors just the other day was trying to count the number of Syrian opposition groups. He got up to 22, one of which was the coalition of many other groups. Then he stopped counting. He just ran out of time.

BOWMAN: Exactly. They say there are hundreds of groups.

INSKEEP: Yeah. So now this opposition group which claims to be an umbrella group, what are they asking the United States for?

BOWMAN: Well, they're already getting anti-armor weapons, training, and all this is being done by the CIA. But what they're really pushing for in this visit is shoulder fired antiaircraft missiles and this is what Al-Jarba told me. Let's listen.

AHMED AL-JARBA: (through translator) We're incapable in these circumstances of building any city or a school or a hospital. Every day planes are bombarding every area in Syria with barrel bombs and they're hitting civilians and residential areas. That's why we need those weapons, to neutralize this air power. I believe that the number one message to him would be antiaircraft weapons.

INSKEEP: Would those weapons make a difference, Tom Bowman?

BOWMAN: Well, Steve, they claim the weapons will make a difference. They'll take down the helicopters that, as he said, are dropping these crude bombs - barrels filled with explosives and nails. But some people I talked with, some military officers, say listen, this is too late. The Pentagon, State Department, CIA all said two years ago arm and train these guys. The White House said no.

And also, Al-Jarba claims the rebels hold 40 percent of the country but also that includes the Al-Qaida folks who, again, are doing a lot of the fighting. And no one seems to think that even with a lot more weapons that Assad can be defeated on the battlefield. So the hope is put pressure on Assad and he'll negotiate.

INSKEEP: So you've got this question of the fighting forces and trying to balance them out in some way, but you also have the question of civilians who've been caught in the middle. What does Jarba have to say about them?

BOWMAN: Right. And of course the international community has already accused the Syrians of using poisoned gas to kill thousands of his own people. There are other allegations too. A Syrian defector - he's a military police photographer - has digital photographs of victims he says were prisoners of the regime and there's evidence of torture.

Now, these allegations were looked at back in January and when I spoke with Al-Jarba he talked about it. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

AL-JARBA: (through translator) These are pictures of detainees of all segments of Syrian society - peaceful protestors, the relatives of opponents, wives and mothers of opponents. They were taken to jail and held in special confinement and after interrogation they were eliminated.

INSKEEP: Allegedly - we haven't seen them but allegedly photos of 11,000 victims. What are they doing with that evidence?

BOWMAN: Well, we have some news here, Steve. We've been told the U.S. does have these photos now and they're being analyzed by the FBI to see if they're authentic or not. And so they could gather this evidence, get some eyewitnesses, maybe more regime defectors. You could see possible war crimes trials. France is already pushing for this and the U.S. would have to decide whether to join that effort.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman this morning.

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