The U.S. is adding the Syrian rebel group al-Nusra Front to its global terrorist list as an alias of al-Qaeda in Iraq, according to a State Department notice being published tomorrow in the Federal Register.
The department acted before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s planned departure for a meeting of the Friends of the Syrian People, being held Dec. 12 in Marrakesh, Morocco. The U.S. is seeking to isolate radical elements in Syria while supporting the main opposition forces against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“We will have more to say about this tomorrow and the coming days,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at a briefing today in Washington. “What I would say is that, I think you know, we’ve had concerns that al-Nusra is little more than a front for al-Qaeda in Iraq.”
The al-Nusra Front, which also goes by the name Jabhet al- Nusra, claimed responsibility for suicide and car bombings against government targets in Syria. Members of the radical Islamist group have been described as among the most effective fighters in the uprising.
Rebels and fighters from al-Nusra overcame three brigades of Syrian troops and a command center of the 111th regiment west of Aleppo yesterday, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on its Facebook page.
U.S. officials have expressed concern that the conflict is a magnet for jihadist fighters and that they might obtain access to chemical weapons and gain power in a post-Assad Syria. The U.S. has been unwilling to provide weapons to the rebels, in part citing concerns arms might go to the extremists.
Nuland said the Assad regime has created an environment through its violence “that extremists can now try to exploit.”
The 20-month conflict, sparked by protests across the Arab world that led to the fall of leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, has claimed at least 40,000 lives, according to the Observatory.
The State Department notice said Clinton found “there is sufficient factual basis” to conclude al-Nusra is an alias of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was declared a “specially designated global terrorist” entity in 2004. The Sunni militant group killed civilians and U.S. forces in Iraq.
The fighting has increasingly split Syria along sectarian lines, with a Sunni Muslim-led opposition confronting a government whose top officials, including Assad, are drawn from the minority Alawite sect, affiliated to Shiite Islam.
Fundamentalist Islamic fighters are a growing presence in the Syrian opposition, increasing their influence as Western nations have failed to intervene militarily in the uprising against the Syria government, according to a report Oct. 11 by the International Crisis Group.
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