The U.S. on Tuesday recognized the Syrian Opposition Council as the sole “legitimate representative” of Syria’s people, joining France, Britain, Turkey, Spain, Italy, and Persian Gulf Arab nations in their recognition of the group. The EU is withholding full recognition partly for its concerns that the group includes radical Islamists. The U.S. had previously acknowledged that the Council was a legitimate representative of the Syrian people, but stopped short of calling it the sole representative. According to President Obama, the group “is now inclusive enough” to be considered the legitimate alternative to the Asad regime.
For the Syrian rebels, Washington’s recognition is largely a diplomatic boost in the fight against President Bashar al-Asad; it is not expected to be accompanied by lethal support, but it may pave the way for greater assistance in the form of communication tools and humanitarian aid. For the U.S., however, the move is seemingly part of a larger plan to demonstrate that it is ready to draw a line between the groups in Syria that it is willing and unwilling to support.
Mouaz al-Khatib, head of a new coalition of Syrian opposition groups, 2nd left, and Syrian delegation attend a meeting of the Friends of the Syrian People in Marrakech, Morocco, Wednesday Dec. 12, 2012. (Photo: AP/Abdeljalil Bounhar)
Indeed, on the same day of recognition, the U.S. blacklisted the Syrian opposition group Jabhat al-Nusra, also called al-Nusra Front, as a foreign terror organization linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq. According to State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, the group is an attempt by al-Qaeda “to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes.” Comprised of Islamist militants mostly from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Central Asia, Jabhat al-Nusra’s goal is to establish an Islamic caliphate. It is responsible for some of the most deadly attacks during the Syrian uprising so far but also for spearheading many of the rebels’ recent gains.
The blacklisting sparked criticism from Syria’s opposition. Syrian Opposition Council leader Mouaz al-Khatib urged a rethinking of the decision, noting that while the U.S. may disagree with a party’s “political and ideological vision…all the guns of the rebels are aimed at overthrowing the tyrannical criminal regime.” The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has also criticized the designation, and a growing number of rebel groups, including fighters in the Free Syrian Army, have expressed their support for Jabhat al-Nusra.
The United States’ decision to formally recognize Syria’s opposition body is its most significant move yet in supporting the rebels against Asad. But what events this week illustrate is that in supporting Syria’s rebels, determining which groups to assist and which to blacklist will be a very difficult but necessary task for the U.S.