President Obama announced on Tuesday that he was recognizing the new Syrian opposition council as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, tightening U.S. ties to the group as Syrian President Bashar Assad’s grip on power appears to be slipping.
Obama, who announced the move in an interview with ABC News, made the decision ahead of an international conference on the crisis scheduled to start on Wednesday in Morocco.
“We have made the 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 representatives of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime,” Obama said.
While the president recognized the opposition, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters earlier Tuesday the administration has no plans to provide arms to the fighters.
The Obama administration also announced on Tuesday that it has formally designated the Al Nusra Front, the militant Syrian rebel group, as a foreign terrorist organization.
The State Department says Nusra Front is directly connected to al-Qaeda in Iraq and is pushing for an intolerant Islamic state to be established once Assad is ousted. The decision to levy the terrorist designation was somewhat complicated by the fact that elements of the Nusra Front have been arguably the most effective fighters among rebels trying to topple Assad.
The move also is an attempt to allay concerns that the Syrian rebel movement is under undue influence by extremists and made it easier for Obama to recognize the Syrian opposition as several European powers have already done.
“Al Nusra has sought to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition while it is, in fact, an attempt by AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq) to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
The designation makes it illegal for Americans to have financial dealings with the group, and it could prompt other nations to take similar actions.
The State Department says Nusra Front fighters represent a very small number of fighters in the rebel movement and that the move will not undermine the broader goal of ending the Assad regime.
The Free Syrian Army did not include the Nusra Front in strategic meetings last week in Turkey, where the rebels discussed setting up a unified command structure.