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In Syria, U.S. decision to blacklist rebel group stirs outcry

An opposition coalition wins recognition as the legitimate representative of Syrians. Some reports indicate Syria's military had fired Scud missiles at rebels.

December 13, 2012|By Patrick J. McDonnell and Rima Marrouch, Los Angeles Times
  • Syrian women wait outside a bakery to buy bread in Maarat Misrin, near Idlib. Elsewhere in Syria, several bomb blasts were reported Wednesday in Damascus, the capital.
Syrian women wait outside a bakery to buy bread in Maarat Misrin, near Idlib.… (Muhammed Muheisen / Associated…)

BEIRUT — The United States faced a growing backlash Wednesday for its decision to blacklist a Syrian rebel faction because of alleged terrorist ties amid reports that the Syrian military had fired Scud missiles at insurgents.

The use of Scuds, a Soviet-designed ballistic weapon, would represent a major government escalation against insurgents trying to close in on the remaining loyalist strongholds in the capital, Damascus, and elsewhere.

According to one U.S. official, Syrian forces in recent days have fired half a dozen Scud missiles from near Damascus into rebel-held areas of northern Syria.

Although recent rebel advances have raised fear that President Bashar Assad might unleash chemical weapons, there was no indication that the Syrian Scuds carried chemical agents, said the official, who declined to be named because he was discussing intelligence matters. There was no word on possible casualties from the reported Scud attacks.

The White House would not confirm the Scud strikes, but Press Secretary Jay Carney said that if the reports were true "this would be the latest desperate act from a regime that has shown utter disregard for innocent life."

Opposition activists who closely monitor Syrian military moves and regularly accuse the government of indiscriminately bombing civilians have made no mention of Scuds being fired, though the large, bulky missiles would be hard to miss.

Several bomb blasts were reported Wednesday in Damascus, which has experienced a steady stream of bombings, presumably the work of insurgents.

In the latest attacks, five people were killed and 23 wounded when three bombs detonated outside the Interior Ministry, a pro-government TV station reported. Earlier, a bomb killed one person in the capital's Jaramana suburb, state news media reported.

Meanwhile, the United States and more than 100 other nations meeting in Marrakech, Morocco, agreed to recognize a newly organized opposition umbrella group as the "legitimate representative of the Syrian people." The formal declaration comes a day after President Obama said the United States would back the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

Dissidents are hopeful that the long-sought backing from the so-called Friends of Syria alliance will lead to a transitional government in exile and a heightened flow of arms and cash to Syrian rebels. But Washington and other opposition allies pointedly stopped short of granting full diplomatic recognition to the coalition.

U.S. and Western officials also emphasized that they were not ready to provide weapons to the highly fragmented Syrian opposition, which includes dozens of militias, among them hard-line Islamists and non-Syrian militants. However, the final declaration from the nations gathered in Marrakech did recognize "the legitimate need for the Syrian people to defend themselves against the violent and brutal campaign of [the] Assad regime."

Syria's major allies, including Russia and Iran, did not participate in the session in Morocco. The two nations say they are seeking a negotiated end to the 21-month-old Syrian crisis, which has cost tens of thousands of lives and left many areas in ruins.

Moaz Khatib, president of the national coalition, joined the rising chorus of Syrian dissident leaders questioning Washington's decision to designate a rebel faction, Al Nusra Front, as a terrorist group linked to the Al Qaeda branch in neighboring Iraq. The decision "needs to be reexamined," Khatib, a preacher and former prisoner of the Assad government, told delegates here.

In Syria, the U.S. decision has caused outrage among many opposition groups, including some moderate secular factions that disavow the hard-line Islamist orientation of Al Nusra. Critics accused Washington of hypocrisy for condemning an effective rebel force while not taking any concrete steps to stop Assad's forces from killing civilians.

"Unfortunately, this has had the effect of making … Al Nusra more popular," said one opposition representative at the Morocco meeting.

In labeling Al Nusra a terrorist organization, the United States noted that that group had "claimed responsibility for nearly 600 terrorists attacks, killing and wounding hundreds of Syrians."

Despite its bloody record, Al Nusra is widely viewed as among the most effective units in the highly decentralized rebel force. The group's name first surfaced almost a year ago after it began claiming responsibility for car bombings in Damascus and elsewhere. Though its ranks are mostly Syrian, Al Nusra has attracted a considerable number of foreign volunteers, reportedly from North Africa, Turkey, Central Asia and even Europe.

In Syria, anti-U.S. protests are planned Friday under the theme "there is no terrorism in Syria except Assad's terrorism."

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Special correspondent Marrouch reported from Marrakech, Morocco. Times staff writer David S. Cloud in Washington contributed to this report.

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