The day before the United States recognized the Syrian National Coalition as the people’s voice for post-Assad Syria, the U.S. State Department designated a major fighting unit of Syria’s 21-month uprising as a terrorist group.
During the Friends of the Syrian People conference the following day in Morocco more than 100 nations joined the United States to endorse the coalition. However, the Syrian opposition coalition’s elected leader, Ahmad Mouaz al-Khatib, objected to the U.S. decision to brand the Jabhat al-Nusra fighters as a terrorist group and called on Washington to reconsider the decision.
Since January of 2012, Jabhat al-Nusra has been one of the most successful fighting units in the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. The group is believed responsible for some of the major successes against the Syrian Army as well as several suicide car-bombings of major military and security installations in Damascus.
The State Department designation
that al-Nusra fighters are terrorists is based on U.S. charges that the group is affiliated with and serves as an alias for al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI). Washington’s terrorist designation seeks to isolate al-Nusra from other Islamists among the estimated 300 separate rebel forces of the Free Syrian Army. The move also was designed to discourage private donors in the Gulf from funding al-Nusra weapons purchases.
Syrian opposition unites behind al-Nusra
The head of the Syria National Coalition, Mouaz al-Khatib, challenged the decision at the Morocco meeting.
We might disagree with some parties and their ideas and their political and ideological vision, but we affirm that all the guns of the rebels are aimed at overthrowing the tyrannical criminal regime
"The decision to consider a party that is fighting the regime as a terrorist party needs to be reviewed," said Khatib, the former cleric of the Mosque of the Umayyads in Damascus who recently went into exile.
"We might disagree with some parties and their ideas and their political and ideological vision,” he said, “but we affirm that all the guns of the rebels are aimed at overthrowing the tyrannical criminal regime."
Aaron Zelin, a Washington Institute for Near East Policy specialist on jihadism,
says opposition to the State Department designation is gaining momentum within Syria's anti-Assad groups.
One opposition group – the Suqur al-Sham brigade – issued a statement stressing the importance of unity among rebel factions and noted that Assad's army was the real terrorist group in Syria.
Another opposition group - The Syrian National Council - said the U.S. designation was simply wrong and also pointed to Assad’s forces as the true terrorists.
Brig. Gen. Salim Idriss, head of a new 30-commander Syrian military council, also said al-Nusra fighters were not terrorists.
‘Nusra doesn’t care if it kills civilians’
The clearest argument for blacklisting al-Nusra came from Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria who served in Damascus until 10 months ago when the United States ended diplomatic relations with the Assad regime.
These acts, which have killed and wounded hundreds of Syrian civilians, do not carefully target the regime. Nusra doesn't care if it kills civilians
“Over the last year, AQI leaders have dispatched personnel, money, and materiel from Iraq to Syria to attack Syrian regime forces,” Ford said. “Al-Nusra Front has claimed responsibility for nearly 600 attacks - in most major city centers. These acts, which have killed and wounded hundreds of Syrian civilians, do not carefully target the regime. Nusra doesn't care if it kills civilians.”
Although the United States is one of several nations that have been actively engaged with the Syria opposition, Washington drives much of the strategy, says Joshua Landis
, a Syria expert who is director of the University of Oklahoma’s Middle East Studies Center.
By separating al-Nusra from the other opposition fighters, Landis said, “He’s [Obama’s] trying to signal the Gulf - Qatar and the Saudi Arabians - that they should not be funding the Salafist movements [such as al-Nusra] and that Syrians have to think about who and how they are going to fight Assad.
“He’s trying to shape the battlefield in Syria in America’s best interests and he’s putting a foot on Jabhat al-Nusra, the al Qaida wing,” said Landis.
What is al-Nusra?
Journalist Aron Lund published a study on jihad movements in Syria last September (“Syrian Jihadism”
) and described al-Nusra in the context of terrorist groups that the Assad regime once hosted to engage in violence elsewhere in the Middle East. He writes that sources claim that some al-Nusra fighters previously fought against the United States in Iraq under the banner of al-Qaida in Iraq.
Many in the Syrian opposition suspect this as well, noting that al-Nusra’s origins are deeply rooted in the times when the Assad regime hosted many terror groups.
Whatever its origins, al-Nusra became widely known only last January. Its leader is cloaked in secrecy. He is known only under the nom de guerre
, el-Fateh Abu Mohammed el-Joulani, and his face is blurred in YouTube videos.
According to Lund, this level of secrecy only helps enhance al-Nusra’s aura of mystery, which, along with its discipline and ample weaponry, is helping the group attract new recruits.