U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is set to meet with Syrian opposition leader Mouaz al-Khatib during a European trip in coming days and will discuss U.S. concerns about the Syrian conflict with Russia as well, White House officials said on Thursday.
It would be the highest-level U.S. meeting with the Syrian opposition, which is fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad in a 22-month-old war that has killed more than 60,000 people and forced more than 700,000 to flee Syria, according to the United Nations.
Biden is due to meet al-Khatib on Saturday in Munich on the margins of a security conference, where the U.S. vice president is also due to deliver a speech, the officials said.
“The position of the United States is focused on supporting an end to the Assad regime, which is why we have a significant amount of pressure applied on the Assad regime through sanctions and other means, while at the same time we’re working to bolster a Syrian Opposition Council that we recognize as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” Ben Rhodes, U.S. deputy national security adviser, said in a conference call with reporters.
President Barack Obama has been criticized for not doing more to aid Syrian rebels. Obama has said he has wrestled with the question whether a U.S. military intervention in Syria's 22-month-old conflict would help resolve the bloody conflict or would make things worse.
Biden expected to discuss U.S. aid
Biden is expected to discuss U.S. humanitarian assistance and political and “non-lethal” support for Syria in his meetings with al-Khatib and others, Rhodes said.
Among officials Biden will talk to is Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the aide said.
“We’ll be discussing the political way forward,” Rhodes said. “And what we would like to see from other countries, including Russia, is an acknowledgment that Bashar al-Assad must go and that there needs to be a transition within Syria to a new government.”
Biden is scheduled to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Friday, French President Francois Hollande on Monday, and British Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday.
Obama this week said the United States would boost humanitarian aid to Syria with $155 million in aid for food, medical care and clothing for people in Syria and refugees.
Khatib, the scion of a Damascene Muslim religious dynasty, is a mainstream Muslim preacher from a family that has long been the custodians of the ancient Umayyad Mosque in central Damascus, one of the holiest places of Islam. He is widely respected across Syria's different religious communities.
He first made his mark in the earliest days of the revolt, telling mourners at the funeral of protesters shot by Assad's forces that freedom was a natural right.
The bearded former imam, who studied geophysics and has worked as an oil company geologist, was banned from preaching for 17 years and imprisoned several times after the speech. He is now based in Cairo.
Rebels hold a press conference
Meanwhile, a group of opposition fighters from Daraya city near the Syrian capital held their first press conference on Thursday, signaling the opposition’s increasing strength against the regime inside the country.
Local Council of Daraya City group, which called for humanitarian relief, discussed how the opposition fighters in the past 70 days have succeeded in pushing the conflict from the outskirts of Damascus into the heart of the capital itself.
Their press conference comes in a time when three bombings rocked al-Maliki neighborhood near the fortified Presidential Palace in Damascus.
Despite the opposition fighters advances near Damascus, it remains unclear whether they’ll be able to turn the tables on the regime’s forces. The fighters launched a hasty offensive on Damascus last summer but were swiftly routed by government forces.