U.S. and allied officials have been pushing the opposition to outline a provisional government that includes officials from the Assad regime. Doing so could help avoid chaos of the kind that ensued in Iraq when invading U.S. troops ousted the entire government of Saddam Hussein, officials said.
The opposition is being warned off sectarian or ethnic reprisals, although some U.S. officials privately acknowledge that there will be some settling of scores.
Notice of the new terrorist designation for Jabhat al-Nusra was published Monday in the Federal Register. The move prohibits Americans from any financial dealings with the group and freezes any of its assets under U.S. control.
Administration officials say that Jabhat consists largely of Syrian fighters who joined al-Qaeda in Iraq years ago and have returned to their own country. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was one of the leading Sunni insurgent groups that attacked U.S. troops there.
The administration singled out Jabhat despite knowing that such a move partly bolsters Assad’s assertion that insurgents fighting his rule are “terrorists.”
The U.S. action also risks alienating Syrian rebels who are unaffiliated with al-Qaeda but see the well-organized Jabhat as an important ally in defeating Assad.
But U.S. officials say that blacklisting Jabhat could help clear the way for wider international support for more-moderate rebels.
Nuland would not confirm the blacklisting Monday, but she said the United States is concerned that Jabhat “is little more than a front for al-Qaeda in Iraq,” which has transferred some operations to Syria.
The State Department has designated Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra Front as a Global Terrorist organization. The new designation identifies the group as an alias of previously designated al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The designation, which will be announced Tuesday, is part of a fast-moving effort by the Obama administration to recognize and bolster Syria’s hand-picked rebel coalition and marginalize extremists who have become an increasingly powerful military force within the opposition.
Notice of the designation was published Monday in the Federal Register. The notice indicated the paperwork was signed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Nov. 20. In separate amendments under the Immigration Act and an existing executive order, the designation prohibits Americans from having any financial dealings with the group and freezes any of its assets under U.S. control.
Recent reports from Syria suggest that extremists groups such as Jabhat are gaining ground in places where support for the opposition Free Syrian Army, the loose umbrella of rebel fighters, is wearing thin.
FSA officials estimate Jabhat fighters now account for 7.5 to 9 percent of total rebel forces, and that they are regarded as some of the fiercest front-line troops against the military force of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Administration officials say the Jabhat group consists largely of Syrian fighters who joined al-Qaeda in Iraq some years ago and have returned to their own country, along with additional Iraqis and other foreigners. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was one of the leading Sunni insurgent groups that attacked U.S. troops there.
The decision to list the group as an AQI alias both accelerated the designation process, and emphasized the administration’s desire to tie it directly to the al-Qaeda offshoot in neighboring Iraq.
Much of the group’s funding is believed to come from sympathetic financiers in the Persian Gulf. While the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar are directly funding the FSA, there are growing fears that some of that money also is going to the extremists.
Jabhat was not invited to a meeting Friday in Turkey, where rebel military commanders formed a unified command under the tutelage of American, European and Arab security officials.
The military command follows establishment last month of a new Syrian Opposition Coalition, a political structure that the administration plans to recognize at a meeting this week in Morocco as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Clinton will lead the U.S. delegation to the Wednesday meeting.