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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.

By Staff writer / December 11, 2012

Free Syrian Army fighters aim their weapons, close to a military base, near Azaz, Syria, Monday, Dec. 10.

Manu Brabo/AP

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Washington

Increasingly alarmed by the rise of extremists in a teetering Syria, the United States is taking a series of steps this week that it hopes will bolster the moderate political and militant forces battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

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The State Department on Tuesday designated a group considered to be Al Qaeda’s chief affiliate in Syria as a terrorist organization, finding that Jabhat al-Nusra, or the al-Nusra Front, is an alias for Al Qaeda in Iraq. The group has carried out a rising number of attacks in Syria, and is seen to be growing in influence within the ranks of Syria’s armed rebellion.

In addition, the United States is expected to formally recognize the recently constituted Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people at a gathering Wednesday in Morocco of Syrian opposition political figures and international supporters of a democratic Syrian transition.

The steps come amid accelerating signs of President Assad’s loosening grip on control of the country, a trend the US and other powers seeking Assad’s departure are not unhappy to see – but one which is increasingly offset by the worrisome rise of Islamist extremists like the al-Nusra Front.

In announcing al-Nusra’s designation as a terrorist organization affiliated with Al Qaeda, senior State and Treasury Department officials said Tuesday that the group has carried out more than 600 attacks inside Syria since November 2011 based on the strength of its networking with Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). By designating al-Nusra as an alias of AQI, the State Department is recognizing the two groups as one and the same.

AQI developed in Iraq with the help of the Assad regime, which for years allowed fighters, money, and weapons to flow across the Syrian border to assist an organization that included the “infidel” American forces in Iraq among its targets. Now, senior US officials say, AQI is reversing the flow and sending fighters, money, and weapons into Syria.

In recent months al-Nusra and other Islamist militant groups have come to be some of the more effective forces in battling the Syrian military, in part as a result of the financing and increasingly sophisticated arms the Islamists are receiving from the governments and moneyed individuals of a number of Gulf states.

That effectiveness against Assad is one reason some leaders within Syria’s disjointed political and armed oppositions condemned the US move against al-Nusra, saying it was likely to end up helping Assad hang on to power longer.

But the senior US officials speaking with journalists Tuesday said the US is well-acquainted, from its years in Iraq, with the ideology of AQI and thus of al-Nusra, and that they “have no place in the future Syria.”

The designation of al-Nusra as a terrorist organization does nothing to deny “the Syrian people’s right to self-defense and to defend themselves from the brutality of the regime,” one senior State Department official said. “However,” he said, “that is not a justification for extremism,” adding that Syrians “do not want one extremist regime replaced by another extremist model.”

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