By Jamie Crawford
U.S. officials insist the designation of a key Syrian rebel group as a terrorist entity was a necessary step that will not weaken the ability of other rebels to combat the Syrian military.
The designation of the al-Nusra Front as a terrorist organization has garnered a good deal of controversy and questions about its effectiveness because of the fierce fighting prowess of its members, but U.S. officials stood resolute Tuesday in their belief that the overall effect will be to minimize the group's role in the Syrian opposition while not reducing the fighting capabilities of the rebel groups.
"Al-Nusra Front is one of many groups that are fighting the Syrian regime now, it is not the only one," a senior administration official told reporters Tuesday in explaining the designation. "In fact it is a minority. Its influence has grown in recent months, but it still represents the minority element within the broader armed opposition."
The State Department added the group to its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations Tuesday, saying it is a front for al Qaida in Iraq, an organization added to the list in 2004. The Treasury Department sanctioned two senior members of al-Nusra in concert.
The department also targeted Syrian groups known as the Shabiha - paramilitary militias controlled by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that have attacked and killed opponents of the al-Assad regime.
"The United States will continue to aggressively pursue those who undermine the desires of the Syrian people to realize a representative government that does not employ violence against its own people," David S. Cohen, under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury Department, said in written statement. "We will target pro-Assad militias just as we will the terrorists who falsely cloak themselves in the flag of the legitimate opposition."
Some of the analysts who follow the situation in Syria say that al-Nusra is an important actor on the opposition battlefield fighting al-Assad, and has played a key role in several of the tactical military gains the opposition has made in recent months.
"Whether the American steps today will immediately curtail al-Nusra's capabilities, I don't think they know," the senior administration official said. "But I think that other nations that are involved in helping the armed opposition will now take more seriously our concerns about the Nusra front."
Officials also noted the exclusion of al-Nusra from a recent meeting of military commanders with the Free Syrian Army in Antalya, Turkey, that aimed to forge a unified command structure of the armed opposition. The exclusion underscores the Free Syrian Army's unease with the overall threat posed by al-Nusra, officials said.
While the administration does not expect the actions to lead to an immediate change on the ground inside Syria, officials said it will complicate the ability of senior members of the group to travel across borders.
And while the ultimate outcome from the U.S. designation of al-Nusra is still a matter of debate, calls continue to rise both inside and outside Syria for the United States to follow up the designation with providing arms to other rebels.
While President Obama has not taken that option off the table, officials say there must be more clarity on the ground before that course is pursued.
"For us, providing arms has to be done in a way that helps promote a political solution," the senior administration official said. "Until we understand how these arms promote a political solution, we do not see how provision of arms is a good idea."