In an apparent bid to isolate Islamist extremists and bolster a new Western-backed Syrian opposition alliance, the United States is moving to declare one of the most effective Syrian rebel groups a foreign terrorist organization because of its alleged ties to al Qaida.
The State Department originally planned to add the Nusra Front – Jabhat al Nusra in Arabic – to its list of international terrorist groups this week, McClatchy learned. The announcement was postponed, however, as officials discussed how to get the maximum impact from the designation.
The designation now is likely just before the United States and its European and Arab allies meet with leaders of the new opposition alliance at a conference Dec. 12 in Morocco, where a significant aid package for the new alliance is expected to be announced.
The impact of the terrorist designation for Nusra, whose members have been at the forefront of many of the rebels’ most recent victories, remains unclear. Many rebel sympathizers said they were concerned that the designation would make it impossible for rebel groups to coordinate in their fight to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"Many groups labeled by the administration as al Qaida are actually not. What is the reason the U.S. administration is considering it (Nusra) al Qaida? All of our focus is on getting rid of the Assad mafia. We welcome anyone in the fight against Assad,” said Radwan Ziadeh, the executive director of the Washington-based Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “We have had very, very little or no support from the United States. We got promises, promises.”
Nusra first made its mark by claiming responsibility for a series of car and suicide bombings in Damascus that killed dozens last January and that U.S. officials later said bore the mark of the group al Qaida in Iraq. Since then, Nusra has become essential to the rebels’ battlefield operations.
A McClatchy reporter who spent most of last month in rebel-held territory encountered Nusra fighters at several major clashes, including battles in Aleppo, the seizure of a border crossing at Ras al Ayn and the capture of an artillery base in the city of Mayadeen. The pattern appeared to be that the group and other jihadist units would capture territory, then turn it over to secular rebels who fight under the Free Syrian Army name. That type of coordination might be complicated by a terrorist designation, raising the specter of a scenario in which a U.S.-approved rebel group is working with a U.S.-labeled terrorist group.
U.S. law enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks freezes the U.S. assets of individuals or groups that are placed on the U.S. international terrorism list and prohibits American citizens and U.S. residents from making financial transactions with them.
The symbolism of the move may be more important, however, as the administration tries to build the credibility of the new opposition bloc, which replaced one that the United States and many Syrians viewed as dominated by exiles.
It also appears that the Obama administration is counting on the European Union to follow suit, thereby encouraging other governments to cut off funding and other support for the group and to isolate it politically.
Nusra members in Syria have told McClatchy that most of their funding comes from individuals in Saudi Arabia.
A Western European diplomat, who requested anonymity in order to discuss the issue candidly, said the European Union would designate Nusra as a terrorist organization if the United States did so.
“If they are put on the terrorism list by the United States, we will follow. They are part of al Qaida,” the diplomat said.
Asked for comment, State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said he had "nothing to announce on this."
Experts and U.S. officials see the move against Nusra as a part of a U.S.-backed effort to strengthen the new National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. The coalition, formed last month with Western and Arab support, is seeking international recognition as a government in waiting that would replace Assad’s embattled regime, should it fall, and guide Syria’s transition to democracy.
The coalition has struggled to bring under its command the rebel forces that are battling to end four decades of Assad family rule, including the loose amalgam of groups known as the Free Syrian Army.
Nusra and other groups have refused to accept the new coalition’s authority, however, fueling fears that they’ll also refuse to accept civilian rule should the rebels defeat the Assad regime, and will continue fighting for a Taliban-style Islamic state, a position Nusra leaders weren’t shy about voicing to a McClatchy reporter.
“Eighty percent of Syrians want Islamic law,” Iyad al Sheikh Mahmoud, the leader of a recently founded Jabhat al Nusra group in the central Syrian city of Qalat al Mudiq, said last week in explaining why he didn’t think that elections would be necessary if Assad falls.
Secular rebels have complained that the West’s hesitance to provide them with financial aid has fueled Nusra’s success.
“The strongest ones fighting now are the ones who have money," said Abdullah Alsayed, a former Syrian army captain who led a rebel unit before coming to the United States in January. “All the money comes in from Saudi Arabia and Qatar and all the money goes to the Salafis and Islamists," a reference to the religious conservatives who provide Nusra with its fighters.
Some experts warned that declaring Nusra a foreign terrorist organization was likely to hurt the anti-Assad uprising by fueling tensions between the group and other opposition units. The designation could disrupt the coordination behind recent rebel advances and even risk clashes among rebel groups.
“I’m not saying they aren’t a terrorist group. But given the circumstances and given their cooperation with the opposition as a whole, designating them now would be disastrous,” said Elizabeth O’Bagy, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War who recently returned from touring rebel-held areas to research Nusra and other Islamist groups.
One major problem, analysts explained, is that the United States has little information that allows it to distinguish between the front’s hard core – including many foreigners – wedded to al Qaida’s vision of creating a state based on its rigid interpretation of Islam, and Syrians drawn to the group by its reputation of being the best armed, trained and disciplined rebel unit.
The best way of isolating the hard-liners is to allow other Syrian rebel groups to convince moderate fighters to defect from Nusra, according to O’Bagy, who said she thought that process was already under way.
During a visit to the war-torn city of Aleppo, O’Bagy said, she witnessed a celebration by rebels who “had managed to get an entire battalion of 200 men to drop the Jabhat al Nusra flag” and rejoin their group.
Nusra’s fighters, however, include many who say they fought against U.S. forces with al Qaida’s Iraq branch, and many of its leaders – including the top commander in Syria’s Deir al Zour province – are Iraqis.
Aaron Zelin, an analyst who follows Nusra for his research on militants at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the administration’s plans to designate the group a foreign terrorist organization were unusual because such determinations typically came only after a threat or attempt to strike U.S. interests.
Zelin, who reads and compiles Nusra’s communiques, said that while the group hadn’t made any specific threats against the United States, it had warned, “Don’t try to meddle in Syria or else you’ll pay the price.”
“This is an interesting case because it’s very proactive on the part of the administration,” said Zelin, who blogs about Nusra and other militant groups at Jihadology.net. “At this juncture, Nusra’s only goal is to take out the Assad regime, but once the regime is gone, I’d imagine that parts of the group would try to set up a base there.”
McClatchy special correspondent David Enders in Beirut and Roy Gutman in Istanbul contributed to this report..