Washington – In late 2011, U.S. officials say, battle-hardened commanders of al Qaida’s Iraq branch slipped into Syria to rally jihadists around the fight to unseat President Bashar Assad, espousing a militant Islamism that worried pro-democracy activists.
A year later, the group those Iraqi commanders formed, the Nusra Front, appears to be leading the insurgency against Assad, even coordinating with non-Islamist rebels who still view the militants with suspicion but can’t dispute their superior battle skills.
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U.S. officials on Tuesday formally labeled the Nusra Front part of the al Qaida in Iraq terrorist network, a move designed to drive a wedge between Islamist and nationalist rebels and to prevent extremists from carving out a Taliban-style state in a post-Assad Syria. But the move is unlikely to change Nusra’s pre-eminence on the battlefield, according to a senior U.S. official who briefed reporters under the condition of anonymity.
“Whether the American steps today will immediately curtail Nusra’s capabilities, I don’t think they will,” the official said. But the official said he hoped it would discourage those donating to Nusra, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
“I think other nations that are involved in helping the armed opposition will now take more seriously our concerns about the Nusra Front and its expanding influence,” the official said. “It is important for countries to understand what Nusra is and what it represents.”
That’s especially timely now as the United States, after months of hesitation, has decided to throw its support to a new coalition of Syrian opposition groups that came together last month under U.S. pressure. President Barack Obama announced the new policy Tuesday in an interview with ABC News’s Barbara Walters in which he declared the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces to be the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
“Not everybody who is participating on the ground in fighting Assad are people that we are comfortable with,” Obama said. “There are some who I think have adopted an extremist agenda.”
Whether that will be enough to wean the secular rebels from Nusra is unclear, said Elizabeth O’Bagy, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War who recently returned from touring rebel-held areas to research Nusra and other Islamist groups in Syria.
The declaration that Nusra is a terrorist group hasn’t cut into Nusra’s support, O’Bagy said, and may in fact be bolstering it. Some prominent rebel commanders – including two well-known moderate generals in Aleppo – pledged solidarity with Nusra. Other Syrians have dubbed the U.S. move a “pro-Assad policy.”
“They still see them as an ally in trying to defeat the regime in ways the U.S. is not at all,” she said.
O’Bagy and other analysts said the U.S. must act quickly to counter that view by pledging direct support for those rebel forces that have aligned themselves with the coalition that Obama recognized Tuesday.
Even that may be too late to undercut Nusra, which has become an integral part of the anti-Assad movement. The State Department said that Nusra has claimed some 600 attacks, including at least 40 suicide operations, since November 2011. A McClatchy reporter who traveled throughout Syria for much of last month encountered Nusra units at every battle site he visited.
Why did the Obama administration wait so long to move against a force it had identified as al Qaida more than 10 months ago?
“My guess is that it’s because the administration has tried to stay away from overtly backing the opposition and picking sides, and now they can no longer stay out of the situation,” O’Bagy said.
Nusra leaders seem to have learned from the missteps that cost al Qaida public support in Iraq. Despite the State Department’s allegation Tuesday that Nusra bombings have cost “numerous innocent Syrians” their lives, the organization seems to be trying to keep civilian casualties to a minimum by focusing heavily on traditional infantry-style operations. In some places they are providing the only aid to reach thousands of hungry, displaced Syrian families, according to analysts.
“There’s an opposition that feels the United States has turned its back on them and the first policy they see that’s concrete is against someone they’re fighting with,” said Joe Holliday, another analyst from the Institute for the Study of War who’s compiled extensive research on Syrian rebel factions.
Perhaps anticipating such criticism, the U.S. announcement on Nusra came with a Treasury Department move to sanction pro-Assad shabiha, the feared pro-Assad militias that reportedly have begun to receive training from Iran.
“We’re equal opportunity sanctioners,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland quipped at a briefing Tuesday.
Nuland said that the timing of the move against Nusra came partly because it took time to build a solid case against the group and partly because the group “had “accelerated its infiltration” of the opposition, perhaps a euphemism for the many Nusra-led rebel advances of recent weeks.
Three senior U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity as is typical for Obama administration briefings, told reporters in a conference call that last year, the al Qaida in Iraq leader known by the nom de guerre Abu Du’a ordered another militant, Abu Mohamed al Jawlani, to establish the Nusra Front in Syria. Jawlani is now the Nusra commander and receives “strategic guidance” from Abu Du’a, the officials said.
The two Nusra leaders singled out in Tuesday’s designation were Anas Hassan Khattab, whom the officials said was in charge of funds and weapons coordination between al Qaida in Iraq and Nusra, and Maysar Ali al Jubouri, who was described as the religious and military commander for the Nusra Front in eastern Syria.
Jubouri, one of the officials said, moved from the Iraqi city of Mosul in late 2011 with “the objectives of transferring al Qaida’s ideology and techniques to Syria.”