Activists and moderate rebel groups across northern and eastern Syrian have in recent months complained that Nusra fighters have at times responded violently to those who challenge their primacy. Many Syrians predict a power vacuum should the government be deposed, and Nusra appears to be trying to consolidate control before such an event.
“We reassure our brothers in Syria that al Nusra Front’s behavior will remain faithful to the image you have come to know, and that our allegiance will not affect our politics in any way,” Jawlani said in the recording, according to translations carried by news agencies.
Fearing that Nusra is starting to fill the political void left by two years of disarray among the moderate opposition, American and Western European diplomats are turning up the pressure on the Syrian Opposition Coalition to name provincial representatives inside of Syria and to build a central authority that’s poised to act as a temporary government should Assad’s regime collapse.
The process has been plagued by discord and disorganization – obstacles that were discussed again at a lunch here Wednesday with Kerry, British Foreign Secretary William Hague and opposition figures including Ghassan Hitto, a longtime Texas resident who recently became premier of a temporary shadow government. While the Americans pressed for better organization and efficiency, the State Department official said, the Syrians repeated their calls for more military aid.
CNN reported this week that the administration was prepared to add body armor and night-vision goggles to its current pledge of food and medicine for the rebels, but U.S. officials have made no public announcement. France and Britain already have said they planned to send similar military aid to Syrian rebels.
The State Department official said Kerry was “always considering a variety of options” and planned to revisit the issue April 20 at the next Friends of Syria conference in Istanbul.
“He didn’t promise anything,” the official said of the lunch meeting.
Apart from Hitto, the Syrian delegation included top leaders of the Syrian Opposition Coalition: George Sabra, a prominent Christian who’d taken part in a previous government-forming attempt and is backed by the Muslim Brotherhood; Mustafa Sabbagh, a businessman with extensive financial networks who serves as the coalition’s secretary-general; Suheir al Atassi, who recently resigned her post but apparently remains the coalition’s chief coordinator for humanitarian aid; and Najib Ghadbian and Walid Saffour, the coalition representatives in the United States and Great Britain, respectively.
Yaser Tabbara, spokesman for Hitto, said the interim premier was focused on building a strong executive branch that would reassure Western backers who are now weighing key demands: a no-fly zone, the use of Patriot missiles that are in southern Turkey to counter Assad’s SCUD missiles, and more direct aid for the military wing of the council.
Tabbara said the coalition’s internal divisions are overblown and that Hitto has been working hard to make clear to the armed wing that it has a vital role to play in what he envisions as a ministry of defense that not only will battle Assad’s forces but also pursue “a strategy of military containment” of the Nusra Front. He said Kerry and Hague responded positively to Hitto’s plans.
“We’re very aware of the challenges on the ground for the interim government,” Tabbara said. “But the burden of dealing with these extremists is not on the West’s shoulders or borne by anybody but Syrians. And we need to face that challenge."
Hilal, of the New America Foundation, said the coalition and its nascent temporary government are still unknown entities to most Syrians.
“The Syrians do not know who this Hitto person is. Wherever they are on the political spectrum, they ask: ‘Who is this foreigner?’” Hilal said, a reference to Hitto’s American citizenship and more than 20 years residency in the United States. “The opposition is going to have to do a lot of work to organize local councils and link them up to the government. We’re looking at a much longer process.”
David Enders contributed to this report from Washington.