The US State Department has officially designated one of the Syrian rebel factions, Jabhat al-Nusra, as a Global Terrorist organization, identifying the group as an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
For at least a year, the US has bolstered the Syrian rebel movement fighting to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Hundreds of millions of dollars as well as non-lethal gear have been sent to the rebel fighters, in addition to financial aid and weapons from US allies in the Arab Gulf states.
But this is the first time the US has officially acknowledged the significant rise of Islamic jihadists in the Syrian opposition. The new designation illustrates the Obama administration’s attempt to “marginalize extremists who have become an increasingly powerful military force within the opposition,” according to the Washington Post.
In response to news of the State Department’s designation of al-Nusra, up to 83 separate battalions of Syrian rebels signed a petition expressing solidarity with the al-Qaeda-linked group and denouncing the US’s decision, in a reflection of how radicalized the Syrian opposition has become.
Recent reports have established that Jabhat al-Nusra, and other al-Qaeda-linked jihadist factions like it, have become a key element in the Syrian opposition, despite repeated attempts by some in Washington to paint the rebels as freedom fighters.
In October, The New York Times published an article confirming that “Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists,” despite the fact that those weapons were being sent with US approval and coordination.
All along, the Obama administration claimed they had a proper vetting process which allowed them to pick and choose which of Syria’s disparate, unorganized rebel groups would receive the assistance, and avoid the thousands of jihadist fighters, many of whom are fighting under the banner of al-Qaeda.
But a US official told the Washington Post early on that the CIA knew very little about who was receiving US support, nor could they control exactly where it ended up. “It’s still the case that without actual access to Syria, it’s hard to know exactly who they are,” the official said.
The New York Times also reported that the Obama administration has been “increasing aid to the rebels” even though “we don’t really know” who is receiving it.
The Obama administration still believes it can constructively meddle on behalf of the Syrian rebellion. While there is a new push to marginalize extremists, the administration insists on continuing to build up a coalition of hand-picked anti-Assad activists.
The insatiable habit of the US to get involved in civil wars and try to overthrow regimes by proxy has not led to constructive ends in the past, and has already worsened the situation in Syria.