Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, said Wednesday that the al-Nusra Front that is rallying rebels in Syria is simply a rebranding of al Qaeda in Iraq and should be treated as such.
"The Assad regime's brutality has created an environment inside Syria that al-Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI) is working hard to exploit. In an effort to establish a long-term presence in Syria, AQI is trying to rebrand itself under the guise of a group called al-Nusrah Front," Ford wrote in the pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat Wednesday. "By fighting alongside armed Syrian opposition groups, al-Nusrah Front members are seeking to hijack the Syrian struggle for their own extremist ends."
Ford's article comes one day after the State and Treasury departments officially designated the al-Nusra Front as an alias for AQI and thereby applied a range of U.S. sanctions on al-Nusra and its members.
"The al-Nusrah Front was formed by AQI and has pledged allegiance to its leader, Abu Du'a. Over the last year, AQI leaders have dispatched personnel, money, and materiel from Iraq to Syria to attack Syrian regime forces. Al-Nusrah Front has claimed responsibility for nearly 600 attacks -- in most major city centers. These acts, which have killed and wounded hundreds of Syrian civilians, do not carefully target the regime. Nusrah doesn't care if it kills civilians," Ford wrote.
The move also comes one day after President Barack Obama, in an interview with ABC, announced that the United States is formally recognizing the Syrian opposition council (formally called the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces) as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. That announcement was expected to be made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today in Morocco at the Friends of Syria meeting, but she took ill and sent Deputy Secretary Bill Burns in her place.
The recognition is a political designation and is meant to both bolster the new council's legitimacy versus groups like al-Nusra and facilitate international aid to the Syrian opposition groups the United States does not consider terrorists. But experts note that the new council has a long way to go before it can show enough credibility to stand as the government in waiting to follow the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
"Experts and many Syrians, including rebels, say the move may well be too little, too late," the New York Times noted Tuesday. "They note that it is not at all clear if this group will be able to coalesce into a viable leadership, if it has any influence over the fighters waging war with the government or if it can roll back widespread anger at the United States."
Ford said that Syrians fighting Assad should reject help from al-Nusra, which isn't likely considering that it is supplying a host of weapons and fighters to the rebel cause, as the regime ups the stakes by employing Scud missiles, incendiary bombs, and even naval mines dropped from planes.
"Al-Nusrah Front has declared publicly its hope to impose an Islamic state. It rejects the very principles of freedom for which Syrians now are struggling. Al-Qa'ida's devastating violence in Iraq should give pause to any opposition member weighing the costs of affiliating with al-Nusrah Front. As the Syrian opposition works towards greater cohesion and continues pursuing their legitimate aspirations, the Syrian opposition must consider carefully from whom they accept assistance," he wrote.
The United States will increase its humanitarian assistance to the Syrian opposition, along with allied countries, but has no plans to directly arm the rebels or employ Western military assets to protect them from the Assad regime's assault from the air.
"We are looking at a quantitative, not a qualitative, difference in the aid we are providing," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told The Cable in a short interview in Manama, Bahrain, Dec. 8.
Despite that, Ford wants the Syrian rebels to identify with the West and not the al-Nusra Front and its allied groups inside Syria.
"The American people and our international partners stand with you during this struggle," he wrote. "This is your revolution, your country, and your future -- not al-Qa'ida's."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.