United States to Label Syrian Rebel Group Terrorists

One of the most disciplined and effective forces battling Assad deploys terrorist tactics.

A Free Syrian Army fighter walks among the rubble in Aleppo, October 6, 2012
A Free Syrian Army fighter walks among the rubble in Aleppo, October 6, 2012 (Wikimedia Commons)

Concerned that radical Islamists are eclipsing the more moderate and secular brigades of the Free Syrian Army, the United States is in the process of designating Jabhat al-Nusra a foreign terrorist organization. The group is suspected of ties with Al Qaeda.

The designation would prohibit all American citizens from providing money or support to fighters under the Nusra umbrella. Assets that Nusra may have under American jurisdiction would be frozen.

The announcement by the State Department comes at a particularly violent phase in Syria’s civil war. The capital Damascus now appears the fault line between President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its supporters and the largely Sunni opposition. Several reports last week suggested that government forces were assembling chemical weapons for possible use against rebels.

As the violence has worsened and as the regime has diverted an additional amount of resources to defend the capital, extremist elements within the broader anti-Assad movement have become more powerful on the battlefield. This development is an especially troubling one for the United States and their allies in the region who have regarded warily the rise of the Islamist factions to power throughout the Middle East as a result of last year’s “Arab Spring” uprisings.

While relatively small compared to other parts of the Free Syrian Army, Jabhat al-Nusra is an incredibly effective force on battlefield. According to media reports and dispatches from the ground, Nusra operatives undertake some of the most daring missions around the country, earning the awe and admiration of many of their secular colleagues. Whereas other groups have been unable to infiltrate behind the Syrian army’s lines, Jabhat al-Nusra has planned and carried out strike operations in some of the most heavily secured areas of Damascus. Syria’s Air Force Intelligence headquarters and a military officers’ club in the city of Aleppo are two of the most high-profile targets that Nusra fighters have managed to strike since this summer.

A number of these operations have included the use of suicide bombers. According to the Long War Journal, which compiles terrorist activities around the world, Nusra has conducted 41 suicide attacks against Syrian army and police facilities since January of this year. Many of those attacks have killed civilians in the process, lending some degree of credibility to Assad’s message that his government is fighting foreign jihadists who want to overthrow his government. The fact that terrorist tactics are used in an attempt to topple the Syrian regime is undoubtedly a major reason why the United States are comfortable in labeling the group a sanctioned terrorist organization.

Regardless of Jabhat al-Nusra’s designation, the more pressing question is whether it will have an adverse impact on Bashar al-Assad’s opponents, many of whom would rather work with the extremist group on the battlefield than shut them out.

The Free Syrian Army and Jabhat al-Nusra have worked well together in the past. Both organizations are currently in the process of surrounding a military base near the city of Aleppo in the hope of capturing yet another regime facility. Other operations, such as the seizure of a oilfield in the east, have also been jointly led. This coordination will make it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for the United States to work with moderate rebel elements without emboldening the very people it now refers to as terrorists.

For the rebels, who have been looking for direct American military support since the conflict began, labeling Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization could very well be seen as a hasty and counterproductive decision. The United States want jihadists marginalized in Syria post Assad but for the opposition fighters who are holding their ground despite persistent airstrikes from Assad’s military, the “day after” is not nearly as important as the day of.

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