On the same day President Barack Obama recognized the main Syrian opposition coalition as the rightful representatives of the Syrian people, his State Department classified the al-Nusra Front, an increasingly popular Islamist rebel faction, as a terrorist group. The classification sparked a wave of anti-American backlash among more than 100 Syrian opposition organizations.
Al-Nusra has ties to al Qaeda in Iraq and is responsible for over 600 attacks within Syria over the past year, including multiple suicide bombings that have killed civilians caught in the crossfire. The group has become a major power player in the Syrian uprising in the last few months of 2012, recruiting veteran jihadists who have been fighting against American and coalition forces in Iraq for years into Syria to combat Bashar al-Assad’s government forces.
Anti-American sentiment is already running high in Syria due to the Obama administration’s inaction over the past 21 months of fighting that has left some 40,000 Syrians dead. Tuesday’s move to officially brand al-Nusra Front as a terrorist organization was meant to isolate and delegitimize the group in the face of increasing popularity among the various rebel factions but seems to have done the exact opposite.
The blacklisting of al-Nusra has caused many rebel groups to unite behind the terrorist organization, with over "100 antigovernment organizations and fighting battalions [calling] online for demonstrations on Friday under the slogan, ‘No to American intervention — we are all Jabhet al-Nusra.’"
Worse, many jihadist elements within the Syrian opposition are congratulating al-Nusra for being designated a terrorist organization by the State Department, belying the anti-American and pro-Islamist sentiments beginning to take root in the rebel movement.
Obama’s attempts to court favor with the Syrian opposition are seen by many as too little, too late; worse, many members of the revolution are hostile towards the possibility of American intervention in the country’s civil war.
With momentum swinging in the rebels’ favor and Assad appearing more and more desperate to maintain his hold on the country, opposition members believe the U.S. is hoping to interject itself at the last minute and hijack whatever new direction the country takes once the war is concluded.
“Anti-American sentiment is growing, because the Americans are messing up in bigger ways lately,” claims Damascus rebel military council spokesman Nabil al-Amir.
The unfortunate reality is that al-Nusra Front’s clout could have been stunted much earlier in the conflict had President Obama taken the lead on events in Syria. Obama has vacillated for nearly two years over how to respond to Mr. Assad’s campaign of terror against his own people, while al-Nusra only began to assume a position of prominence in the last few months of the fighting.
Had the White House moved to isolate the group earlier and provided real assistance to the Syrian people in their struggle against Assad’s tyrannical government, it could have prevented the anti-American/pro-jihadist sentiment growing among the revolutionary forces. However, President Obama couldn’t risk alienating his base in the months leading up to the presidential election by committing U.S. military forces to the region.
Now that the election is over, the president is attempting to take a more active role in the Syrian conflict, but the reaction so far has hardly been what his administration could have hoped for.