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Obama to meet with Syrian opposition leader

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News,White House,Nation,Barack Obama,Syria

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is expected to meet with the head of Syria's opposition council in the coming days, as the U.S. weighs the possibility of more economic sanctions aimed at changing Syrian President Bashar Assad's calculus ahead of June elections.

A White House official said Obama would see Ahmad al-Jarba while the opposition leader is in Washington for meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry and other U.S. officials. The exact day of Obama's meeting was unclear, though it's likely to occur after the president returns from a three-day trip to the West Coast that kicks off Wednesday.

The official insisted on anonymity in order to confirm Obama's meeting before it was publicly announced.

Jarba's trip to Washington comes as the Obama administration is boosting its support for the Syrian Opposition Council. The State Department announced Monday that it would give the opposition's offices in Washington and New York formal diplomatic status and increase non-lethal assistance to the opposition by $27 million.

The administration 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 this week.

The moves come at a critical time in the conflict as Assad's government has made recent battlefield gains and is planning presidential elections in June. The administration is considering taking additional steps in the coming days, including the possibility of levying new sanctions on the Assad regime.

Earlier U.S. sanctions on Assad and his associates have had little impact in stemming the bloody civil war that has stretched into a fourth year. More than 150,000 people have been killed in the clashes between rebels and forces loyal to Assad, with millions of others displaced by the war.

The White House has denounced the June presidential elections in Syria as a farce aimed at giving Assad the veneer of electoral legitimacy. Assad has ruled Syria since 2000, when he took over from his late father.

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Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC and Matthew Lee and http://twitter.com/APDiploWriter

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