WASHINGTON -- The State Department said Monday that the Syrian rebel movement's Nusra Front is just another name for al Qaida in Iraq, an acknowledgment that the uprising to topple President Bashar Assad is led in part by foreign Islamist extremists who fought U.S. troops for years in the bloody Iraq war.
U.S. officials said they would amend this week their 2004 designation of al Qaida in Iraq as a terrorist group to include Nusra among the groups aliases, handing the terrorist label to an Islamist organization that is responsible for many of the rebels recent advances against pro-Assad forces.
The Obama administration is expected to make a formal announcement Tuesday, on the eve of an international Friends of Syria summit in Morocco.
In labeling the Nusra Front, known in Arabic as Jabhat al Nusra, as al Qaida in Iraq, analysts say, the U.S. is attempting to draw a clear distinction between nationalist Syrian rebels and foreign jihadists whove flocked to Syria after fighting U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Weve had concerns that al Nusra is little more than a front for al Qaida in Iraq, who has moved some its operations into Syria, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Monday.
However, analysts warned, the move could backfire because Nusra fighters often work in close coordination with more secular rebel groups.
A McClatchy reporter who spent most of November inside Syria encountered Nusra fighters at every critical battle he visited, including on the frontlines of fighting in Aleppo, at the seizure of a key crossing point along the Turkish border, and in the takeover of a Syrian army artillery base in Deir al Zour province, where the victorious rebels raised a black Islamist flag.
Nusra also enjoys popularity on the ground among some Syrians whove felt abandoned by the United States and other Western powers that have refused to send arms directly to the rebels.
After nearly two years of fighting thats left an estimated 40,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands displaced, many Syrians either have become radicalized themselves or have grown so desperate that theyre eager to accept help even from fundamentalist Islamists such as the Nusra Front.
In some respects, this type of policy has come too late and wont be effective at this juncture, said Aaron Zelin, who researches the Nusra Front and other Syrian militant groups at the Washington Institute on Near East Policy in Washington.
People dont really care how it happens, but they just want to be done with the regime, Zelin added. Once that happens, the policy may be more effective because the goals of the different factions wont be in line and there were will be fissures between the secular and more moderate groups, and the Islamists.
Nusra also has its detractors among Syrians, who say the groups ideology hardly is consistent with the original goals of the anti-Assad uprising, which began as public demonstrations demanding greater democratic freedoms but devolved into civil war after months of government repression. Nusra leaders openly deride the need for elections after Assad falls, saying elections are inimical to Islamic law.
No matter how tactically effective al Qaida has been, they still put forth a vision for Syria thats not tolerant, not multi-sectarian, and not about all the things this revolution was about, said a U.S. official with knowledge of the designation, speaking on condition of anonymity because public statements werent authorized until after the formal announcement.