May 13 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. President Barack Obama met for the first time with Syrian opposition leader Ahmad al-Jarba, who has been in Washington for about a week pursuing broader assistance from the American government.
The president joined a meeting today between U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Jarba, who leads the moderate Syrian Opposition Coalition, according to a White House statement. Jarba’s delegation and U.S. officials affirmed their commitment to a political solution and discussed the threat of increasing extremism in Syria, according to the statement.
“Obama welcomed the Coalition’s leadership and constructive approach to dialogue, and encouraged the Coalition to further its vision for an inclusive government,” according to the statement summarizing the White House meeting.
The discussions took place as prospects for a peaceful resolution dimmed with the resignation of Lakhdar Brahimi as United Nations special envoy in charge of mediating talks on the three-year-old civil war. The U.S. has sought a diplomatic resolution through negotiations in Geneva, which have stalled.
The conflict has claimed at least 150,000 lives, according to Brahimi, while leaving 6.5 million people displaced within Syria and at risk from attacks and hunger, and forcing almost 3 million to flee the country as refugees, a human tide that threatens to destabilize neighboring Lebanon and Jordan.
During today’s meeting, Obama and Rice condemned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for targeting civilian populations with indiscriminate aerial bombardments, according to the White House statement. They underscored the U.S. support for moderate opposition groups and called on the Assad regime to allow unfettered delivery of humanitarian aid.
Obama has said his priority is to avoid having the U.S drawn into another Mideast war. The administration is providing rebel factions it deems moderate with $287 million in non-lethal military aid, while the rebels’ Sunni Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar supply weapons and money to pay fighters. The U.S. is spending $1.7 billion for humanitarian assistance.
Jarba is seeking to overcome Obama’s reluctance to send arms, particularly shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons needed to thwart the deadly barrel-bomb attacks by Syrian aircraft. Jarba said in a May 7 speech in Washington that the rebels are holding their ground and even gaining in some parts of Syria.
Recent photos and videos showing fighters with U.S.- made antitank missiles suggest that the U.S. is providing limited covert aid. Those weapons are in the hands of a faction of the Free Syrian Army, which is allied with the Syrian Opposition Coalition, Munzer Akbik, Jarba’s chief of staff, said May 8 at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.