WASHINGTON - The State Department said Monday that a militant group that is at the forefront of the Syrian rebel movement is just another name for al-Qaida in Iraq, an acknowledgment that the uprising to topple President Bashar Assad is led in part by foreign Islamist extremists who fought U.S. troops for years in the bloody Iraq war.
U.S. officials said they would amend this week their 2004 designation of al-Qaida in Iraq as a terrorist group to include among the group's aliases the Nusra Front, handing the terrorist designation to the militant Islamist organization that is responsible for many of the rebels' recent advances against pro-Assad forces.
The Obama administration is expected to make a formal announcement Tuesday, on the eve of an international Friends of Syria summit in Morocco.
Analysts say that in labeling the Nusra Front, known in Arabic as Jabhat al-Nusra, as al-Qaida in Iraq, the U.S. is attempting to draw a clear distinction between nationalist Syrian rebels and foreign jihadists who have flocked to Syria after fighting U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We've had concerns that al-Nusra is little more than a front for al-Qaida in Iraq, who has moved some its operations into Syria," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Monday.
But the move could backfire, analysts warned, because Nusra fighters often work in close coordination with more secular rebel groups.
A McClatchy reporter who spent most of November inside Syria encountered Nusra fighters at every critical battle he visited, including on the frontlines of fighting in Aleppo, at the seizure of a key crossing point along the Turkish border, and in the takeover of a Syrian army artillery base in Deir el-Zour province, where the victorious rebels raised a black Islamist flag.
Nusra also enjoys popularity on the ground among some Syrians who have felt abandoned by the United States and other Western powers that have refused to send arms directly to the rebels.
After nearly two years of fighting that has left an estimated 40,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands displaced, many Syrians either have become radicalized themselves or have grown so desperate that they're eager to accept help even from fundamentalist Islamists such as the Nusra Front.
"In some respects, this type of policy has come too late and won't be effective at this juncture," said Aaron Zelin, who researches the Nusra Front and other Syrian militant groups at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington.
"People don't really care how it happens, but they just want to be done with the regime," Zelin added. "Once that happens, the policy may be more effective because the goals of the different factions won't be in line and there were will be fissures between the secular and more moderate groups, and the Islamists."
Nusra also has its detractors among Syrians, who say the group's ideology hardly is consistent with the original goals of the anti-Assad uprising, which began as public demonstrations demanding greater democratic freedoms but devolved into civil war after months of government repression. Nusra leaders openly deride the need for elections after Assad falls, saying elections are inimical to Islamic law.
Nusra first came to the world's attention nearly a year ago when a car bomb exploded in Damascus, killing at least 44 people and wounding another 160. That Dec. 23 bombing was followed by another on Jan. 6 that killed at least 26 people and injured dozens of others. At the time, Damascus largely had been free of the violence that was growing elsewhere in Syria.
Opposition leaders at first disavowed the blasts and blamed the Assad regime for them. But U.S. officials told McClatchy in early February that they believed the explosions were the work of al-Qaida in Iraq and that al-Qaida's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had authorized his followers in Iraq to move into Syria.
In the ensuing months, suicide bombings became an increasing tactic of the anti-Assad forces, and Nusra fighting units began to appear in key battles around the country, particularly after rebels launched offensives in July in Aleppo, Syria's commercial hub, and Damascus.
U.S. officials on Monday declined to detail the evidence that led them to designate Nusra as another name for al-Qaida in Iraq or explain why it took so many months for them to reach that conclusion. But Nusra fighters have told a McClatchy reporter and other researchers that Iraqis are believed to be among Nusra's top commanders and fighters, working in conjunction with Syrian foot soldiers. Many Syrian fighters have acknowledged in interviews that they fought against U.S. forces in Iraq.
The veteran militants seem to have learned some lessons from missteps in Iraq that cost them public support. Instead of intimidating Syrians into accepting their literalist views, they've provided basic services. In Iraq, al-Qaida-allied cells often worked in isolation from other types of insurgents and wore out their welcome in host communities by forcing locals to adopt their rigid interpretation of Islam, even banning smoking in some regions.
Zelin noted that Syria was a major conduit for men, weapons and cash supplies to al-Qaida in Iraq insurgents who fought the U.S.-led military occupation of Iraq.
"There was already a network of individuals and an infrastructure in Syria even before the uprising began," he said. "So this is a legacy remnant of al-Qaida in Iraq."
After McClatchy reported last week that the State Department was poised to designate the Nusra Front a terrorist group, other Syrian rebels expressed solidarity with the group and dismissed the U.S. move as a ploy to cover how little the Obama administration has helped the rebels militarily. The Obama administration supplies only "nonlethal" assistance such as medical and communications help to the Syrian opposition, though it quietly supports some of its Persian Gulf allies in sending arms.
"We are all Jabhat al-Nusra," read a joint statement in Arabic from 29 Syrian local committees and militias that reportedly have sworn solidarity to the Nusra Front.
The Reuters news agency and Arabic media also reported on the formation of the new Islamist-dominated rebel council, which was set up in opposition to the Turkey-based Syrian rebel command that's affiliated with a new opposition council that hopes to win U.S. recognition as a government in waiting.
That kind of rift, which underscores the battles over legitimacy among Syrian opposition leaders, is exactly what the United States was hoping to avoid by trying to isolate extremists and boost the relatively moderate forces that have vowed to restore Syrian ties to the international community with a post-Assad nation that's pluralistic and democratic.
"No matter how tactically effective al-Qaida has been, they still put forth a vision for Syria that's not tolerant, not multi-sectarian, and not about all the things this revolution was about," said a U.S. official with knowledge of the designation, speaking on condition of anonymity because public statements weren't authorized until after the formal announcement.
(McClatchy special correspondent David Enders contributed to this report from Beirut.)