Last updated: December 12, 2012 8:51 pm

US action over Syria rebels backfires

The Obama administration’s decision to label an extremist Syrian rebel group as a terrorist organisation showed signs of backfiring on Tuesday when other members of the Syrian opposition called for protests against the move.

The US state department said that Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the more effective military groups fighting the Syrian regime, was in effect an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the jihadi group that flourished in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

However, within Syria there was growing resentment at the US decision to target the group at a time when Washington remains reluctant to get more involved in the civil war. A Facebook page called “We are all Jabhat al-Nusra” has been set up to call for protests across Syria on Friday against “American meddling”. Late on Tuesday, the page had more than 20,000 likes and claimed to be represent more than 30 Syrian factions.

The angry reaction is further evidence of the disconnection between the Obama administration, which is focusing heavily on what will happen in Syria if the Assad regime falls but has ruled out direct intervention, and many of the rebel groups on the ground who are eager for immediate assistance.

“The Americans know exactly where Assad and his family’s palace is,” said one comment on the Facebook page. “If they wanted to get rid of him, they could have, but instead they target the Jabhat because it represents Islam.”

Although the Obama administration has been predicting the fall of the Assad regime for months, officials have leapt on recent indications that the rebel forces are making decisive gains on the ground, particularly around the capital.

This has intensified preparations for the “day after” in Syria, should the opposition topple the regime.

The decision to label Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist group, which means that any assets the group has in the US will be frozen, is partly designed to bolster the Syrian opposition by showing that it is possible to weed out militant groups that are hostile the west. It comes ahead of a meeting on Wednesday in Morocco of the Friends of Syria, where a number of governments are expected to formally recognise the Syrian opposition.

But the terrorist designation also reflects an effort to try to delegitimise Jabhat al-Nusra and other radical groups from the political transition that would follow a collapse in the regime. “Extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra are a problem, an obstacle to finding the political solution that Syria’s going to need,” said Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Syria, last week.

However, although the group espouses a jihadi ideology that with moderate Syrian society, it has been gaining prestige for its effective fighting and lack of corruption, and analysts have warned that the US move to isolate it could backfire.

“They don’t steal, unlike other FSA members, and they do fight very hard,” said one activist from Aleppo. Jabhat al Nasra has further increased its popularity by helping provide people with scarce fuel and flour in some areas, said an activist from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitoring group.

Washington’s intense focus on Syria’s chemical weapons in recent days is another sign that US feels the conflict could be about to reach a crunch point and is worried that President Bashar al-Assad’s weapons stockpile could be vulnerable.

Although Leon Panetta, defence secretary, said on Tuesday that intelligence about the potential use of chemical weapons had “kind of levelled off”, t he Obama administration is worried that regime forces might consider using chemical weapons against rebel groups if it became desperate. It is also deeply anxious about the prospect of these weapons falling into the hands of groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra if the regime collapses.

However, the difficulty in marginalising the group was underlined on Tuesday when, according to the observatory, it helped capture the Sheikh Suleiman base, a key military base near Aleppo, highlighting its fighters’ growing influence on the ground.

An opposition activist in Damascus, known as Abu Adel, said people were “using Nusra till the revolution is over”. “We have not seen anything bad from them, but each person has a different opinion, he said “The liberals and Nasserists [secular Arab nationalists] are very afraid of them and all the Islamists in general.”

Reporting by Geoff Dyer in Washington, Michael Peel and Abeer Allam in Abu Dhabi, Abigail Fielding-Smith in Beirut

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