AMMAN, Jordan — Right after the United States formalized its backing of a new Syrian opposition group Wednesday, the mutual unease underpinning the partnership surfaced as the group’s leader openly criticized the United States for declaring the rebel movement’s Nusra Front a terrorist group linked to al Qaida in Iraq.
Sheik Moaz al Khatib, head of the Syrian National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, asked the Obama administration to rethink its labeling of the Nusra Front, stressing that the militant faction was integral to the fight against the regime of President Bashar Assad.
“The logic under which we consider one of the parts that fights against the Assad regime as a terrorist organization is a logic one must reconsider,” Khatib told reporters in Marrakesh, Morocco, after more than 100 nations agreed to recognize his group as the “legitimate representative” of the Syrian people.
Khatib’s tacit endorsement of Nusra was echoed by many rebel commanders inside Syria and signals a thorny road ahead as U.S. officials attempt to disentangle nationalist or relatively moderate rebel factions from the Islamist extremists who have become perhaps the leading military force in the nearly two-year fight to topple Assad.
“We love our country. We can differ with parties that adopt political ideas and visions different from ours. But we ensure that the goal of all rebels is the fall of the regime,” added Khatib, a Muslim cleric who’s complained in the past that blueprints for a post-Assad transition were too secular.
U.S. officials did not react to Khatib’s statements, but Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said in Morocco that Khatib had been invited to visit Washington soon.
Burns also announced a $14 million aid package to assist millions of Syrians who've been forced from their homes by fighting and now face the onset of winter. The package includes "essential medicines, nutritional supplements for over 200,000 children, and blankets and boots for thousands of families," he said.
Mapping out the disparate rebel ideologies is an urgent matter because of signs that the conflict is escalating. For months, pro-Assad forces and rebels had been locked in a bloody, lopsided war of attrition that’s cost an estimated 40,000 lives since the conflict began in March 2011 as part of the Arab Spring protest movement.
In recent weeks, however, the rebels have gained ground with sophisticated operations, typically spearheaded by Nusra fighters, including some who’d fought U.S. forces in Iraq. The regime is fighting back hard, continuing its campaign of shelling and bombing rebellious areas. Opposition activists who compile casualty figures say at least 200 Syrians died on Tuesday alone, a number that could not be independently verified.
Nusra’s likely significance in the conflict was on display again Wednesday when three blasts at the front gates of Syria’s heavily guarded Interior Ministry in Damascus devastated the building and reportedly killed four people and wounded at least 20.
No group immediately claimed responsibility, but self-proclaimed Nusra fighters posting on militant forums on the web said that the explosions were a Nusra operation. Nusra has taken responsibility for at least 40 suicide blasts inside Syria in the past year, the State Department said earlier this week. It was a pair of massive bombings in Damascus nearly a year ago that first prompted U.S. officials to conclude that al Qaida in Iraq had moved its operations to Syria.
U.S. officials, meanwhile, directed reporters’ attention to the actions of the Syrian government. The State Department denounced pro-Assad forces’ use in recent weeks of so-called “barrel bombs,” highly inaccurate canisters loaded with explosives and shrapnel that are rolled out of the back of regime helicopters. Additionally, unnamed U.S. officials told The New York Times that the Assad regime had recently fired Soviet-era SCUD missiles into rebel-held territories in northern Syria. Neither the State Department nor Pentagon would confirm or deny that report, however, citing intelligence reasons, and there was no confirmation from inside Syria.
The United States is pursuing a strategy of isolating Nusra’s militant Islamists by labeling them terrorists and redirecting aid to political and military rebel factions that have signed on to plans to create a democratic, pluralistic Syria once Assad falls.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters that Nusra’s terror designation was intended for two audiences: ordinary Syrians, on whom the U.S. is counting to isolate extremist rebel factions, and the United States’ “partners who have made choices other than ours in terms of the way they are supporting the opposition” – code for U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who’ve been providing weapons and money to Islamist rebel groups.
But the policy seems to be backfiring in Syria, where expressions of support for Nusra could be seen in demonstrations and on web forums where people were asked to sign statements proclaiming, “We are all Jabhat al Nusra,” as the group is called in Arabic.
“It has made them more popular,” said Ammar Dandash, a Syrian journalist from the northern province of Idlib. He said most Syrians who support the opposition are frustrated with the United States and its Western allies after more than a year when requests for arms had gone unheeded.
Nusra began carrying out secretive car and suicide bombings in late 2011, according to U.S. officials, when al Qaida in Iraq’s top leader, Abu Du’a, dispatched another al Qaida in Iraq leader to Syria to join in the anti-Assad rebellion. The State Department said Abu Du’a continues to advise Nusra on tactics and policy.
At first, many anti-Assad activists denied that the group was working with the rebels, claiming that the Syrian government had created it to discredit the opposition. Now, however, Nusra’s influence has surged over the rebellion, not only with bombings in Damascus and other cities, but in more traditional military operations where battalion-size Nusra units have been instrumental in insurgent successes across the country.
Many rebels said singling out Nusra as a terrorist organization might make the group more popular. They also said it was unfair to single out Nusra when other rebel groups share similar ideology. Ahrar al Sham, for example, is another group whose tactics include suicide bombings and whose fighters adhere to a literalist interpretation of Islamist doctrine.
“This declaration could also include other groups – it needs more explanation,” said Jawad Abou-Hatab, who belongs to the newly recognized Syrian coalition. “Jabhat al Nusra is defending its country.”
Abou-Hatab depicted Nusra’s presence as the healthy emergence of political plurality in the space wrested from the Assad dynasty’s four-decade authoritarian stranglehold. In the new Syria, he suggested, there would be room even for views that are anathema to the West.
“They have the right to their opinion,” he said of Nusra, “which is that an Islamic country is inclusive.”