The US may soon name the Syrian rebel al-Nusra Front, one of the strongest among the opposition, a foreign terrorist group. The designation is likely to complicate the opposition’s fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The US Department of State has been collecting evidence against the group for several months to classify the Islamic radicals as a foreign terrorist organization. Officials believe the designation will come before the Friends of Syria meeting, which is scheduled for Dec. 12 in Morocco.
The Department of State originally planned to add the al-Nusra Front to its international terrorist list this week, but the announcement was postponed while officials discussed when the timing would be most beneficial, McClatchy reports. Officials who spoke to the publishing company said the al-Nusra Front will likely be added to the list shortly before the Morocco conferences.
American officials claim the goal of the designation is to isolate extremist groups in Syria and give more power to the new political opposition group that was unveiled in Qatar last month, National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, CNN reports. The al-Nusra Front has expressed opposition to this new coalition and some fear the group wouldn't accept its authority if Assad is defeated.
But calling Nusra a terrorist organization could also affect the course of Syria’s civil war. About nine percent of all rebels are members of the Nusra group. The organization gets most of its funding from Saudi Arabia and has played a major role in the battles against the Assad regime. Through car and suicide bombings in Damascus, support in the battles in Aleppo, the seizure of a border crossing at Ras al Ayn and the capture of an artillery base in Mayadeen, al-Nusra Front has been a vital part of the rebel victories.
Unnamed analysts told CNN that al-Nusra is preparing to conduct suicide bombings against Assad’s military and intelligence facilities. Al-Nusra is also currently responsible for protecting the most dangerous area along the road to Aleppo. The group is thought to have several thousand fighters and is looking to recruit more.
But US officials say Nusra has links to al-Qaeda’s branch in Iran. If this group of opposition fighters is designated as a terrorist organization, then all of Nusra’s US assets will be frozen and American citizens will be prohibited from making any financial transactions with them.
Perhaps most important for the US would be the opposition’s establishment of credibility without the inclusion of al-Nusra Front. Secular rebels have expressed frustration with the US for failing to provide financial aid, while Nusra received support from Saudi Arabia.
“The strongest ones fighting now are the ones who have money,” Abdullah Alsayed, former leader of a rebel group, told McClatchy. “All the money comes in from Saudi Arabia and Qatar and all the money goes to the Salafis and Islamists.”
Even though the West has ideological concerns with the inclusion of al-Nusra in the opposition, its designation as a terrorist group could weaken the rebel fight against the Syrian government.
The designation could also complicate matters if the US decides to provide arms and other military or humanitarian aid to the opposition fighters. There would be a risk that the resources fall into the hands of the al-Nusra, rather than its intended recipients. New evidence has recently emerged that arm shipments from Qatar to Libyan rebels fell in the hands of Islamist militants, which strengthened those groups and allowed them to become a destabilizing force. US officials are considering the Libya situation before making any decisions on arming Syrian rebels.
By weakening al-Nusra and perhaps refusing to provide arms to the opposition, the US may be forced to intervene militarily itself. The White House already issued a warning to the Assad regime, claiming that any attempt to use chemical weapons would be a "red line" for the United States.
Such an intervention has appeared more likely after the US stationed massive aircraft carriers with thousands of servicemen along the coast of Syria this week. The USS Dwight Eisenhower, an aircraft carrier that holds 8,000 men, arrived at the Syrian coast Tuesday. This week NATO also approved deployment of Patriot Air and Missile Defense Systems in Turkey near the northern Syrian border towns controlled by the rebels.
“The muscle is already there to be flexed,” a US official told the London Times about American preparation to intervene in the conflict, if necessary.
Congress has also opposed the Pentagon’s initiative to cut the defense budget – a $3 million trim that would reduce US military resources at a time when an intervention in Syria could be imminent.
The US now faces a choice to either support the jihadist al-Nusra Front and allow the well-equipped group to continue fighting with the rebels, or to designate them as terrorists and deal with the potentially disastrous consequences of a weakened opposition. Unnamed officials told CNN and McClatchy that the Department of State has already made its choice and that the consequences remain largely unknown.