The designation also deals a blow to rebels who consider the group their deadliest weapon in the fight against Assad.
As the U.S. and its allies convene with Syria’s opposition in Marrakesh, Morocco, their moves signal a concerted effort to unite the most palatable groups in the opposition, in a structure that most of the world can deal with. For obvious reasons, Jabhat al Nusra, or Al Nusra Front, as the group is called in English, doesn’t fit that mold; it’s blamed for suicide bombings, beheadings and a publicly stated intention of recreating the Islamic Caliphate, or religious rule, in Syria.
****Jabhat al Nusra: How They Emerged
After months of Syrian and U.S. reports that Iraqi Qaeda affiliates were operating in Syria, Jabhat Al Nusra emerged on to the scene in May with a video claiming responsibility for the twin suicide bombings of a security building and the Military Intelligence Directorate in Aleppo on Feb. 10. Those attacks killed 28 people and injured more than 200. Earlier bombings in Damascus, which targeted the State Security Directorate on Dec. 23 and a police station on Jan. 6, were also attributed to the group.
Opponents of the Assad regime, including the nascent armed militant groups, vehemently denied government accusations that they were responsible and accused Syrian intelligence agencies of faking these attacks. False flag operations are common in the region, and the Syrian regime was suspect because had been reportedly releasing senior Qaeda operatives from prison and has long been tied to terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and al Qaeda in Iraq. The regime’s history with car bombs in Lebanon also piled on suspicion.
Al Nusra Gets Real
As rebels expanded their ranks and won territory in the northern parts of the country, a window of opportunity for Qaeda and militant Salafis emerged. Money and materiel from wealthy Arab Gulf states converged on Syria, ready to support for another round of religious warfare. Islamist fighters took a more prominent role, started to speak to the press, and slowly became known as the most effective force in battle. For a time, they were seen as more respectful to civilians than both the government and other rebel groups.
In a recent Al Jazeera report from Aleppo, civilians complained about the excesses of the rebels and the dire humanitarian situation, and then praised Jabhat Al Nusra as a respectable alternative. The report (below) is matched by hundreds of protests around the country that support the group and its ideology, and can be seen online in Facebook pages such as “We Are All Jabhat Al-Nusra” that sprang up this week.
With Al Nusra reportedly taking the lead in many battles on military and air force bases around the country, and after bold attacks such as the Sep. 26 bombing and infiltration of the Army’s headquarters in Damascus using just a handful of fighters, the group won local fans, among people who were frustrated at the international community’s refusal to step in and stop Assad’s tanks and planes.
Yet when rebels agreed to form the Syrian Military Command last week in an effort to finally organize the fragmented armed opposition in Syria, Al Nusra and other extremist groups weren’t invited. This was attempt at separating groups like Al Nusra from more moderate opposition forces, who would rather improve Syria than making it a beachhead for global jihad.
Al Nusra Spooks the West, Draws Fans on the Ground
Joshua Landis, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma and author of the influential Syria Comment blog, told Syria Deeply that “America is terrified of those militia leaders because they see them as more Islamist and more brutal” than the Sunni, yet secular army defectors, and that the U.S. is backing the Syrian National Coalition because its members are the “the most pro-American, well educated, elite Syrians you can find.” (Watch the entire interview here).
The strong representation of the Muslim Brotherhood in the coalition is a concern, Landis said, but “America is going to learn to love the Muslim Brotherhood” when it’s compared to the Salafis and violent jihadis that may dominate Syria.
By isolating Al Nusra and promoting the opposition coalition, the U.S. is trying to “glue on a face of civilization on top of what looks like a very Hobbesian world in Syria,” Landis said.
But the move has already begun a backlash. Many leaders in the opposition questioned the U.S. decision to designate Al Nusra as a terrorist group, and disapproval was loudest among the rebels on the ground. Fans of the group created a Facebook page in support, called We Are All Jabhat al Nusra.
On a practical level, opposition leaders tell Syria Deeply the terrorist designation complicates their work on the ground. They say many Syrians have fought with Jabhat al Nusra, men who aren’t themselves extremists but wanted to be part of what had arguably become the most effective fighting force on the ground. Now they’ll have to explain to Syrians that the U.S. doesn’t really think they are terrorists — they just meant to single out the real bad guys. In the fog of Syria’s war, it’s hard to convince the people of Syria where to draw that distinction.