The United States’ decision to designate a powerful Islamist group as a terrorist organization in Syria is backfiring, fueling anti-American sentiments on the ground in the country.
More assertive moves to address the crisis in Syria saw the U.S. recognize the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of Syrians opposed to President Bashar Assad, ahead of a meeting of The Friends of Syria group in Marrakech, Morocco.
Importantly, the Friends’ meeting agreed on the right of Syrian people to defend themselves. Following the announcement days earlier of the unification of disparate rebel elements under a supreme military council, the move was largely interpreted as a tacit acknowledgement by the U.S that a military, rather than political solution is inevitable.
While it remains highly unlikely that the U.S. will commit to direct intervention, the new coalition will presumably work as a conduit for a managed flow of arms to rebels from Qatar and Saudi patrons.
But with fears mounting over the growth and reach of extremist Islamist groups within the Syrian opposition, the recognition also coincided with a U.S. decision to blacklist the jihadist group Nusra Front in an attempt to sideline the radical group in favor of preferred moderates.
The listing proved an awkward sticking point in Marrakech and highlighted the potential difficulties for U.S. foreign policy in Syria.
Just hours after the U.S. recognition, the leader of the newly endorsed coalition, moderate Sunni preacher Moaz Khateeb, publicly urged the U.S. to revisit its blacklisting, echoing calls from senior leaders of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood.
Rebel fighters and opposition leaders point out that the Nusra Front, which has claimed several suicide bombings and publicly calls for an Islamic state, offer superior fighting prowess and have been instrumental in recent opposition rebel gains.
“We were deeply disappointed with the timing of the American statement about Nusra,” lamented George Sabra, a Christian member of the coalition, in Marrakech.
“Our big question is why did they start this process on a negative message, before the positive?” he said, adding that the move was a setback for the group as it tries to earn much needed legitimacy on the ground.
“Nusra is part of this revolution. At this stage, selecting which group can or can not participate in the revolution … is more dangerous to the future of Syria than any terrorist.”
As the meeting went ahead, rebel fighters and civilians fumed, rallying around the Nusra Front, and in the days following, protests emerged under the banners of “We are all Nusra,” and “There is no terrorism in Syria except that of Assad.”
“I have fought alongside Nusra and I have no problem with them,” said one member of the rebel Damascus Military Council near Eastern Ghota near Damascus. “If they want to blow themselves up, it’s fine. We have different ideologies, but our fight is against one enemy,” he said.
Insisting there was no potential for discord between rebel groups over resources, he said he did not expect the blacklisting to affect weapons supply, especially given most weapons are being seized from government caches inside the country anyway.
“If they turn against the U.S. later, then that’s a problem for the U.S., not for me,” he said.
The perception that the U.S. moves – 22 months into a conflict that has seen upward of 43,000 people killed – are late and unsubstantial, is also fueling suspicion and hostility on the ground.
“Why are they coming now, when the FSA is 5 kilometers away from Assad’s palace and one step away from the airport?” complained one young Damascus resident, who described himself as a regime opponent but declined to be named, citing safety concerns.
“They waited and waited and now they want to come in and steal the revolution, steal what is left after everyone is dead.”
“We Syrians know how the Americans work, and we know they are no friends of ours.”
Addressing reporters in Marrakech, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns skirted questions about waning American influence in a post-Assad Syria, but reiterated the U.S. view that Nusra is “little more than a front for Al-Qaeda in Iraq” which had no place in the future of Syria.
Speaking on the sidelines of the conference, one American official acknowledged the timing of the blacklisting had been awkward, but insisted it was “purely coincidental” that legalities around the listing were finalized on the eve of the opposition conference.
Nonetheless, the official said on condition of anonymitythat the U.S was taking the risk of extremism seriously.
“America … knows its enemy. We know Al-Qaeda,” the official said.
“This sends a very firm message to the opposition that they need to think about exactly who will be representing them down the track. We are saying they need to take a long view and they need to start thinking about tomorrow today.”
The Syrian coalition, mostly dissidents exiled for many years under Bashar Assad, and his father Hafez before him, have looked to the U.S. for natural support in their struggle to topple him, but acknowledge they face an uphill battle in gaining legitimacy on the ground.
“We need to earn the right to govern alongside Syrians inside Syria,” Sabra said.
But analysts say the U.S. attempts to mold the post-Assad state were already proving fraught with difficulties.
“For the most part the opposition in exile, having no strong base of its own, fears rejection from the opposition on the ground, and in particular those elements who are in the lead in the struggle against the regime – even as these grow more radical and the fight gets uglier,” said Peter Harling, Middle East project director with the International Crisis Group.
He said the Nusra Front’s strategy in recent weeks was to “both stand out and blend in” forging an array of alliances and taking part in many joint operations, in an attempt to demonstrate its value-added credentials.
“Many fighters loathe them but still find them useful. So the line the U.S.is trying to draw is muddled indeed.”
Harling said the U.S. designation of the Nusra Front had “backfired.”
“It has pushed other armed groups closer into [Nusra’s] embrace; it has forced the opposition coalition in exile to endorse a jihadi formation that not only gives it a bad name, but rejects its leadership; and it dampens the U.S. recognition of a coalition it would like to present as a moderate alternative to the regime.”