Jihadist group in Syria poses quandaries for U.S. now and later

  • New York Times
  • December 8, 2012 - 7:07 PM

BAGHDAD, IRAQ - The lone Syrian rebel group with an explicit stamp of approval from Al-Qaida has become one of the uprising's most effective fighting forces, posing a stark challenge to the United States and other countries that want to support the rebels but not Islamic extremists.

Money flows to the group, the Nusra Front, from like-minded donors abroad. Its fighters, a small minority of the rebels, have the boldness and skill to storm fortified positions and lead other battalions to capture military bases and oil fields. As their successes mount, they gather more weapons and attract more fighters. Iraqi officials and former Iraqi insurgents say the group is a direct offshoot of Al-Qaida in Iraq, which has contributed veteran fighters and weapons.

"This is just a simple way of returning the favor to our Syrian brothers that fought with us on the lands of Iraq," said an insurgent veteran of Al-Qaida in Iraq who said he helped lead Nusra Front's efforts.

The United States, sensing that time might be running out for Syrian President Bashar Assad, hopes to isolate the group to prevent it from inheriting Syria or fighting on after Assad's fall to pursue its goal of an Islamic state.

As the United States pushes the Syrian opposition to organize a viable alternative government, it plans to blacklist the Nusra Front as a terrorist organization, making it illegal for Americans to have financial dealings with the group and most likely prompting similar sanctions from Europe. The hope is to remove one of the biggest obstacles to increasing Western support for the rebellion: the fear that money and weapons could flow to a jihadi group that might further destabilize Syria and harm Western interests.

When rebel commanders met on Friday in Turkey to form a unified command structure at the behest of the United States and its allies, jihadi groups were not invited.

The Nusra Front's ally, Al-Qaida in Iraq, is a Sunni insurgent group that killed U.S. troops in Iraq and sowed widespread sectarian strife with suicide bombings against Shiites and other religious and ideological opponents. The Iraqi group played an active role in founding the Nusra Front and provides it with money, expertise and fighters, said Maj. Faisal al-Issawi, an Iraqi security official who tracks jihadi activities in Iraq's Anbar Province.

But blacklisting the Nusra Front could backfire. It would pit the United States against some of the best fighters in the insurgency that it aims to support. While some Syrian rebels fear the group's growing power, others work closely with and admire it -- or at least its military achievements -- and are loath to end their cooperation.

The Nusra Front gained prominence in early 2012 with suicide bombings in Damascus and Aleppo that targeted government buildings but caused heavy civilian casualties. It was the first Syrian insurgent organization to claim responsibility for suicide and car-bomb attacks that killed civilians.

"They are well-trained mentally and militarily," Issawi said. "They are so excited about the fighting in Syria. They see Syria as a dream coming true."

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