WASHINGTON The State Department said Monday that a militant group that is at the forefront of the Syrian rebel movement is just another name for al-Qaida in Iraq, an acknowledgment that the uprising to topple President Bashar Assad is led in part by foreign Islamist extremists who fought U.S. troops for years in the Iraq war.
U.S. officials said they would amend this week their 2004 designation of al-Qaida in Iraq as a terrorist group to include among the group's aliases the Nusra Front, handing the terrorist designation to the militant Islamist organization that is responsible for many of the rebels' recent advances against pro-Assad forces.
The Obama administration is expected to make a formal announcement today, on the eve of an international Friends of Syria summit in Morocco.
Analysts say that in labeling the Nusra Front, known in Arabic as Jabhat al-Nusra, as al-Qaida in Iraq, the United States is attempting to draw a clear distinction between nationalist Syrian rebels and foreign jihadists who have flocked to Syria after fighting U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We've had concerns that al-Nusra is little more than a front for al-Qaida in Iraq, who has moved some of its operations into Syria," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Monday.
But the move could backfire, analysts warned, because Nusra fighters often work in close coordination with more secular rebel groups.
A McClatchy reporter who spent most of November inside Syria encountered Nusra fighters at every critical battle he visited.
Nusra also enjoys popularity on the ground among some Syrians who have felt abandoned by the United States and other Western powers that have refused to send arms to the rebels.
After nearly two years of fighting that has left an estimated 40,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands displaced, many Syrians either have become radicalized themselves or have grown so desperate that they're eager to accept help even from fundamentalist Islamists such as the Nusra Front.
"In some respects, this type of policy has come too late and won't be effective at this juncture," said Aaron Zelin, who researches the Nusra Front and other Syrian militant groups at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"People don't really care how it happens, but they just want to be done with the regime," Zelin added. "Once that happens, the policy may be more effective because the goals of the different factions won't be in line and there will be fissures between the secular and more moderate groups, and the Islamists."
Nusra first came to the world's attention nearly a year ago when a car bomb exploded in Damascus, killing at least 44 people and wounding another 160. That Dec. 23 bombing was followed by another on Jan. 6 that killed at least 26 people and injured dozens of others. At the time, Damascus largely had been free of the violence that was growing elsewhere in Syria.
Opposition leaders at first disavowed the blasts and blamed the Assad regime for them. But U.S. officials told McClatchy in early February that they believed the explosions were the work of al-Qaida in Iraq and that al-Qaida's leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, had authorized his followers in Iraq to move into Syria.
U.S. officials on Monday declined to detail the evidence that led them to designate Nusra as another name for al-Qaida in Iraq or explain why it took so many months for them to reach that conclusion. But Nusra fighters have said that Iraqis are believed to be among Nusra's top commanders and fighters, working in conjunction with Syrian foot soldiers.
After McClatchy reported last week that the State Department was poised to designate the Nusra Front a terrorist group, other Syrian rebels expressed solidarity with the group and dismissed the U.S. move as a ploy to cover how little the Obama administration has helped the rebels militarily.