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Interview with Robert Ford: The Terror Stamp on Jabhat al Nusra

Why did the U.S. choose to designate Jabhat al Nusra a terrorist group, in the thick of its fight to topple Bashar al Assad? Ambassador Robert Ford, the U.S. envoy to Syria, sat down with us in Marrakech to describe America’s rationale.

Written by Lara Setrakian Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

It was a deep dive into the thinking behind the decision, shedding light on what it can achieve.<!–more–>

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There’s heat coming off the U.S. decision to label Jabhat al Nusra a terrorist organization linked to Al Qaeda. Over the past six months, the rebel group has gained ground as one of the most effective forces fighting the Assad regime. That’s earned them popular support as the tip of the spear on the battlefield.

Jabhat al Nusra’s growing popularity showed in the backlash against the US decision, with street rallies in response. Protests in Syria this week were dubbed: “The only terrorist in Syria is the Assad regime.”

Even members of the U.S.-backed opposition denounced the move, asking Washington to reconsider. Ford said the U.S. won’t, then answered our questions about the policy move that’s struck a Syrian nerve.

Why Do it? Why Now?

“We’re thinking as much about the future of Syria as the present,” he told Syria Deeply. “The momentum on the ground is pointing clearly that the regime is going to have to go, that Bashar and his circle are going to have to leave. And there’s going to have to be a new system.”

But there’s worry in Washington about what that system will be. Jabhat al Nusra’s extreme ideology, plus its rise in prominence, means that the U.S. wants to cut it short from gaining greater influence and possibly infiltrating Syria’s politics.

“We don’t think Nusra has a place in the kind of Syria the people are demanding in terms of freedoms, respect for human rights, respect for people’s dignity, and allowing people to choose what kind of government they want,” said Ford.

“We think it is important, now, to single out who we support…we’ve put Nusra on one side, where it doesn’t have a future, and said the way forward is this coalition.”

Al Nusra, U.S. Says, is a Savvier Al Qaeda 

The US sees Jabhat al Nusra as a direct affiliate of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Ford said the group’s leader, Maysar Ali Musa Abdallah al-Juburi, has pledged his Islamic allegiance to Al Qaeda in Iraq. He also said its leaders have learned from Al Qaeda’s experience in Iraq, where the population turned against it for brutal attacks on civilians. Instead, they’ve approached this conflict with a softer edge.

In parts of Syria, Jabhat al Nusra’s brigades – some more moderate than others – have helped local communities with food, supplies, and social services. That’s partly why Syrians have bristled at the US terror stamp: they see Jabhat al Nusra brigades doing some good on the ground.

U.S. officials see that as window dressing, savvy PR. This week State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland described Jabhat al Nusra as a branch of Al Qaeda, cloaked in the Syrian revolution. She sees it as “an attempt…to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes.”

“We know who they are, we know what they represent,” said Ford. “Nusra has a particularly narrow and extremist agenda, that’s why we singled them out.”

What Happens Next?

Analysts say Jabhat al Nusra’s success in battle comes from having experienced fighters. Activists tell Syria Deeply that up to 20% of the group’s ranks are foreign fighters, coming from Libya, Iraq, and other Arab countries.

“They have been very good on the battlefield, which has gained them a lot of respect,” said Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Jabhat al Nusra has also won favor by handing out bread and fuel in Aleppo, and for their willingness to take on suicide attacks on regime targets.

“They are audacious and don’t fear death, and, as a result, are willing to take more risks,” said Zelin.

Now that Nusra has a network of fighters and a base of popular support the group won’t easily fade away. The hope in Washington is that the new Supreme Military Command, a council of more moderate rebel brigades formed last week, will catch up in strength and overtake Nusra’s momentum.

Zelin says it’s a policy that will be difficult to get right. Young fighters who’ve trained and fought with Nusra would have to switch allegiance. Moderate Syrian leaders would have to step up as an organized force. And most critically, Jabhat al Nusra itself would have to accept its waning influence – something even the U.S. admits it won’t do without a fight.

“Most Syrians don’t believe in a future Jihadist state,” Zelin said.

“The issue is, because things are so dire and because the regime hasn’t been toppled, many are very desperate to get to the transition period. And they don’t care, at this point, who does it.”

(For more on Jabhat Al Nusra, watch our full interview with jihadi expert Aaron Zelin from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy below).

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