President Obama said on Tuesday that the United States will formally recognize a coalition of Syrian opposition groups as that country’s legitimate representative, intensifying pressure on President Bashar Assad’s embattled regime.
“We’ve made a decision that the Syrian opposition coalition is now inclusive enough, is reflective and representative enough of the Syrian population that we consider them the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime,” Mr. Obama said in an interview with Barbara Walters of ABC News.
The decision to recognize the opposition, formally known as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, came just hours after the State Department administration issued another directive designating an al Qaeda-affiliated Syrian rebel group as a foreign terrorist organization — an indication that the Obama administration is scrambling to draw a red line between what it considers acceptable and unacceptable rebels in Syria.
The announcements came on the eve of a meeting in Morocco of Syrian opposition leaders and their Western and Arab supporters.
A senior U.S. official who is attending the meeting in Morocco told reporters in a background briefing on Tuesday that no rebel military commanders will attend the meeting.
Syrian rebels, meanwhile, lashed out at the Obama administration for designating their al Qaeda-affiliated partner as a foreign terrorist group.
The State Department announced it had listed the al-Nusrah Front as one of the aliases of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which was designated a terrorist organization in 2004. Abu Du’a, the emir of al Qaeda in Iraq, controls the front, according to U.S. officials.
The terrorist designation makes it illegal for U.S. citizens to provide material support to the group and freezes any assets the al-Nusrah Front, also known as Jabhat Nusra, may have in the United States.
“Not everybody who’s participating on the ground in fighting Assad are people who we are comfortable with,” Mr. Obama told Ms. Walters. “There are some who, I think, have adopted an extremist agenda, an anti-U.S. agenda, and we are going to make clear to distinguish between those elements.”
Many Syrian rebels, frustrated by a Western reluctance to provide them with arms, think that the al-Nusrah Front has played an effective role in the 21-month-old fight against the Assad regime.
Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian human rights activist and a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told a national security conference in Washington last week that the Obama administration suffered from an “absolute lack of vision,” and as a result, he predicted, Syria would be a problem for “many years to come.”
“If you don’t provide us with the tools to topple the regime, we will join with the devil,” said Mousab Azzawi of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, part of the Syrian opposition. “If the U.S. wants to put an end to al-Nusrah, they should support the other groups to turn the table on the regime and end this suffering.”
The official recognition of the opposition could open the door to the U.S. arming the rebels.
“For us, providing arms has to be done in a way that helps promote a political solution,” said the senior U.S. official who spoke on background. “And until we understand how these arms promote a political solution, we do not see how provision of arms is a good idea.”
The civil war, which erupted in March 2011, has killed more than 40,000 people, according to estimates provided by Syrian activists.
Sami Ibrahim, an activist based in Damascus, said many Syrians support the al-Nusrah Front because they see it as a group that is “fighting the monster that has killed their children and tortured their fathers and mothers.”
The United States has been reluctant to arm the Syrian opposition out of concern that the weapons could end up in extremists’ hands. While some Persian Gulf countries have funneled weapons to the rebels, the United States has provided around $50 million in nonlethal assistance and nearly $200 million in humanitarian aid.
“The rebels see Jabhat Nusra as an ally,” said Elizabeth O’Bagy, a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “This has been a side effect of the U.S. policy of not offering greater support to other rebel organizations.
“In many ways, the population sees this [terrorist designation] as an attack against them,” she added.
The al-Nusrah Front has been far more effective than many of the other rebel groups, including the Free Syrian Army, which is made up of army defectors. Over the past year, it has claimed responsibility for about 600 attacks, including more than three dozen suicide bombings in major Syrian cities. The high civilian toll in these attacks has eroded some support for the group.
Yet the Free Syrian Army maintains a close relationship with the al-Nusrah Front in some parts of Syria, including in the northwestern city of Aleppo, said Mr. Alsaeyd. The groups coordinate operations and share weapons.
“Through these attacks, al-Nusrah has sought to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition, while it is, in fact, an attempt by AQI to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
In addition to the State Department action, the Treasury Department targeted two al-Nusrah Front leaders — Maysar Ali Musa Abdallah al-Juburi, an Iraqi who is the group’s religious and military commander in eastern Syria, and Anas Hasan Khattab, who coordinates the movement of funds and weapons with al Qaeda in Iraq.
“What is important is to understand that extremists fighting the Assad regime are still extremists, and they have no place in the political transition that will come,” said the senior U.S. official.