US draws line in Syria: aligns with moderate rebels, labels others terrorists
On the verge of formally recognizing a rebel coalition as representing the Syrian people, the US designated the al-Nusra Front as a terrorist organization that is an arm of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
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The US did also announce steps Tuesday aimed at the Assad regime, with the Treasury Department imposing sanctions against two militia groups – Shabiha and Jaysh al-Shabi – long known for carrying out the regime’s “dirty work,” including massacres and ethnic cleansing.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Battle for the heart of Syria: inside Aleppo
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What the post-Assad government in Syria will look like is the topic to be taken up when the international Friends of Syria group meets in Marrakesh, Morocco, on Wednesday.
The US refrained from recognizing the new Syrian National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people when it was created in November, choosing instead to recognize it as “a” representative. But State Department officials say the US is now ready to join other countries in recognizing the coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
That recognition is not expected to go so far as to designate the coalition the legitimate government of Syria, however, a move international experts say would open the door to the coalition seeking United Nations status and even international intervention in the conflict.
The coalition was created as an alternative to the Syrian National Council, an earlier group of mostly Syrian expatriates that never managed to develop strong ties with opposition forces inside the country.
It remains unclear how recognition of the coalition will help to hasten Assad’s fall. Officials from countries that have already recognized the coalition, including France, say recognizing and supporting the coalition will help ensure that Assad’s fall does not result in a power vacuum in Syria that is quickly filled by al-Nusra and other extremist Islamist groups.
A senior French official meeting with US officials in Washington last week emphasized the coalition’s close work with local governing bodies that are springing up in so-called “liberated zones” of Syria where the Assad regime has lost control.
The idea, the French official said, is to “empower the coalition as the main channel for [outside] assistance,” and thus to help develop the Syrian people’s “partnership” with the coalition.
Critics of the new coalition counter that it has no real links with the Free Syrian Army or any of the many other armed groups and militias fighting Assad. With no control over the rebels, the coalition can hardly be considered anything like Syria’s legitimate government, they say.
US officials say there will be no representatives of Syria’s armed groups at the Marrakesh gathering, which is meant to be a political meeting focused on Syria’s democratic transition.
But one senior US official says that while the coalition does not give orders to the Free Syrian Army or other armed groups, contacts and coordination between the coalition and the FSA are growing.
As for the apparently increasing support that groups like al-Nusra are receiving from around the Gulf region – either from governments or individuals – the officials say the designation of al-Nusra will help underscore both to Syrians and to “international partners” the concerns the US has about the growing threat of extremist Islamist groups in the Syrian rebellion.