A Syrian rebel prepares to advance against government troops in Azaz. (Manu Brabo / Associated…)
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has formally designated a rebel group fighting in Syria as a terrorist organization in an effort to marginalize the Al Qaeda affiliate and reduce its chances of gaining power should the Syrian government fall.
Blacklisting Al Nusra Front is one of several diplomatic moves planned by the administration to try to maneuver moderate opposition groups into position to shape a pro-Western government if President Bashar Assad is ousted.
U.S diplomats are to take another step toward that end Wednesday at a meeting in Morocco, where the U.S. is expected to formally recognize a recently formed coalition of rebel groups — the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces — as Syria's legitimate government-in-waiting.
"We've made a decision that the Syrian opposition coalition is now inclusive enough, is reflective and representative enough of the Syrian population that we consider them the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime," President Obama told ABC News on Tuesday in advance of the Morocco meeting.
U.S. officials acknowledge, however, that the umbrella group has limited influence with the dozens of insurgent groups that have emerged in Syria's nearly 21-month-old civil war.
Most of those insurgent groups are believed to be secular in nature, but administration officials described Al Nusra Front as a wing of the group Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans during the height of the Iraq war.
"Extremists fighting the Assad regime are still extremists, and they have no place in the transition that will come," a senior administration official, who declined to be identified because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the subject, said Tuesday.
U.S. officials said they hoped that blacklisting Al Nusra Front would persuade other opposition militias in Syria to steer clear of it and prompt Mideastern allies that may be arming its fighters to stop.
But some Syrian opposition leaders denied that Al Nusra Front is connected to Al Qaeda. Their comments raised the possibility that the U.S. move could backfire and increase rebel unhappiness with the United States. Some rebel commanders feel Washington has let them down by failing to provide military support.
Many militias respect Al Nusra Front's fighting ability and have gained access to captured weapons by collaborating with the group. At least 29 opposition groups have called for demonstrations Friday to show their support for Al Nusra Front.
An opposition activist in Morocco preparing for the meeting on Syria called the blacklisting a mistake that was supposedly based on intercepted communications between Al Nusra Front and Al Qaeda. Many of its fighters "have no links to Al Qaeda," said the activist, who asked not to be identified by name.
Farouk Tayfour, the deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria, said the designation was "very wrong and too hasty.... It is too early to categorize people inside Syria this way, considering the chaos and the gray atmosphere in the country," he told Reuters news service.
The terrorist designation will freeze the group's foreign assets and bar Americans from knowingly providing support to it. U.S. officials acknowledged that the group probably relies little, if at all, on American support.
But officials said the blacklisting will make it harder for known Al Nusra Front members to cross borders, which could hamper their operations, and will alert Syrians to a group supporting a radical Islamist ideology that most in the country don't share.
"We have called them out," a second senior administration official said.
Special correspondent Rima Marrouch, on assignment in Marrakech, Morocco, contributed to this report.