The U.S. government has designated Jabhat al-Nusra — a rebel group operating within Syria — as a Global Terrorist organization, in what is seen as an attempt to hinder its rapid growth on the battlefield in Syria.
The designation — first confirmed in a note published in the Federal Register on Monday — will officially be announced tomorrow. Specifically, Jabhat al-Nusra is being labeled by the government as an alias of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the Sunni Muslim group that caused the death of thousands in Iraq after the U.S.-led 2003 invasion.
Jahbat al-Nusra isn’t the only hardline Islamist organization fighting in Syria, but it is both one of the deadliest and the only one with the official support of al Qaeda behind it. Aaron Zelin, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has noted that Jabhat al-Nusra has taken credit for over 500 attacks within Syria since its formation in January. “Unique among rebel groups operating in Syria, it has also earned the legitimacy of top global jihadist ideologues, who have called for grassroots supporters across the world to help fund or join up with the group,” Zelin wrote in Foreign Policy.
The decision to officially label Jahbat al-Nusra as a terrorist group comes just days ahead of talks among the “Friends of Syria” group in Morocco this week. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be leading the U.S. delegation, which is expected to announce its recognition of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. France, Turkey and other states have already labeled the National Coalition as such.
By officially deeming Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist group, the State Department is likely seeking to halt its influence in a rapidly shifting situation in Syria. The move may be coming too late, as the group has already won over many with its fighting ability and funding stream from Gulf states, the New York Times reported on Sunday:
On Friday, demonstrators in several Syrian cities raised banners with slogans like, “No to American intervention, for we are all Jebhat al-Nusra,” referring to the group’s full name, Ansar al-Jebhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham, or Supporters of the Front for Victory of the People of Syria. One rebel battalion, the Ahrar, or Free Men, asked on its Facebook page why the United States did not blacklist Mr. Assad’s “terrorist” militias.
Another jihadist faction, the Sahaba Army in the Levant, even congratulated the group on the “great honor” of being deemed terrorists by the United States.
Jahbat al-Nusra was notably missing from a meeting in Turkey to elect a new unified command for the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The forces of both the FSA and al-Nusra have become a regular presence in the formerly calm capital, Damascus, leading many to wonder if the fall of President Bashar al-Assad is near. Assad has begun mobilizing the components of his chemical weapons arsenal in recent weeks, prompting concern from the United States and others that he will utilize them either blatantly or by placing the blame for their release upon rebels.