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.
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.”
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.
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.