- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The leader of Syria’s opposition coalition urged the U.S. Wednesday to reconsider its decision to designate an al Qaeda-affiliated group fighting against President Bashar Assad’s regime as a foreign terrorist group.

Opposition leader Mouaz Alkhatib urged the U.S. to reconsider its terrorist designation of the Nusrah Front a day after President Obama formally recognized the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

“The decision to consider a party that is fighting the regime as a terrorist party needs to be reviewed,” Mr. Alkhatib told a Friends of Syria meeting in Morocco on Wednesday.

“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,” he said, according to Reuters.

The State Department this week listed the Nusrah Front as one of the aliases of al Qaeda in Iraq, which was designated a terrorist organization in 2004. The group, which has strong support among Syrian rebels, also is known as Jabhat Nusra.

U.S. officials say the Nusrah Front is trying to hijack Syria’s revolution at the behest of al Qaeda in Iraq. Abu Du’a, the emir of al Qaeda in Iraq, controls the Nusrah Front, said U.S. officials.

The U.S. action makes it illegal for U.S. citizens to provide material support to the Nusrah Front and freezes any assets the group may have in the United States.

Also Wednesday, U.S. officials told several news outlets that the Assad regime had begun using Scud missiles within Syria’s own territory, which would be a major escalation of its conflict with the rebels.

“Scuds landed within Syria,” one U.S. official told Agence France-Presse, which also reported that its Syria-based journalists had heard major explosions consistent with such powerful weapons.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday that “we’re seeing missiles employed now,” but refused to confirm missile types.

Meanwhile, hours after Mr. Obama announced that the United States recognizes Syria’s opposition as that country’s legitimate leadership, more than 100 other countries did likewise on Wednesday.

At a Friends of Syria conference in Marrakech, Morocco, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Wednesday that recognition by the international community could allow for more humanitarian assistance — and possibly military aid — to the rebels.

Mr. Fabius said the European Union is renewing its weapons embargo on Syria every three months rather than annually to give it more flexibility as the situation on the ground changes.

“We want to have the ability to continue or to change our attitude on this point — the fact that the coalition, which is asking for the right to defend itself — is now being recognized by a hundred countries, yesterday the U.S. and first France, I think this is a very important point,” he said.

The State Department’s designation of the Nusrah Front as a foreign terrorist group threatens to strain ties between the United States and the newly recognized Syrian coalition.

Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns told the meeting in Morocco that the Syrian opposition needs to “stand firm against extremists who would hijack the resistance for their own ends or sow division among Syria’s communities.”

“Human rights abuses cannot be tolerated, no matter who commits them. They will only weaken the Syria you hope to inherit,” he said. The Nusrah Front is “little more than a front for al Qaeda in Iraq, and we urge all our friends and partners to join our efforts.”

However, the Nusrah Front enjoys strong support among Syrians, and the group coordinates attacks with the Free Syrian Army, which includes army defectors.

“It is a good thing that Alkhatib is listening to the Syrian people,” said Abu Rami, a Syrian activist based in the western city of Homs, in a Skype interview. “The Americans don’t have the right to categorize any battalion that is fighting the Assad regime … only the Syrians have the right to choose who will carry weapons.”

The Nusrah Front is “Syria’s homegrown Salafi-jihadist group, has important links to al Qaeda affiliates and demonstrates a higher level of effectiveness than many other rebel groups,” according to a report by the Institute for the Study of War.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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