Leader of new U.S.-backed Syrian rebel coalition: Obama shouldn't have designated some of our fighters as terrorists

A short but important footnote to the NYT’s story about Assad using scud missiles against the rebels. Remember, this is supposed to be the new pro-western face of the Syrian opposition that’ll make deeper U.S. involvement more politically palatable.

But the leader of the coalition took issue with a decision by the Obama administration to classify Al Nusra Front — one of several armed groups fighting Mr. Assad — as a foreign terrorist organization and urged the United States to review that decision.

The coalition leader, Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, said, “The logic under which we consider one of the parts that fights against the Assad regime is a terrorist organization is a logic one must reconsider.”

He also said: “We love our country. We can differ with parties that adopt political ideas and visions different from ours. But we ensure that the goal of all rebels is the fall of the regime.”

Why is an alleged “moderate” sticking up for Jabhat al-Nusra, allegedly an offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq? Because: The only thing Syrians care about right now is bringing down Assad, and if the Nusra Front is willing to pitch in on that then, as far as they’re concerned, three cheers for them. Read Aaron Zelin’s piece at Foreign Policy for a more thorough exposition of that, or just click here and check out the photo that was circulating on Syrian Facebook after the State Department declared Al Nusra officially a terrorist group. Writes Zelin:

Syrians are also planning to take to the streets to express their solidarity with Jabhat al-Nusra this week. A coalition of coordinating committees and rebel battalions has called for demonstrations this Friday under the slogan “No to the Interference of America — We Are All Jabhat al-Nusra.” The statement originally had 29 signatories, but now contains more than 100.

Even more worrisome from the perspective of the United States, there are tentative signs that Jabhat al-Nusra has also been providing local services. While the designation signals that the U.S. government is committed to isolating the group, its heroics on the battlefield and its work to provide for the basic needs of the Syrian people could signal that it is becoming embedded within the social fabric of the population.

Some of the Al Nusra fans are undoubtedly good old-fashioned jihadi sympathizers but even the more secular types are in no mood to be picky when it comes to fighters willing to risk their lives to finish off Assad. And so Obama’s attempt to earn some goodwill with the population by endorsing the Syrian Opposition Council last night is instantly off to a bad start. It’s a perfect example of why intervention there is doomed to be messy and thankless: Politically, Obama had no choice but to denounce Al Nusra and al-Khatib had no choice but to defend them. And meanwhile, the group is hard at work expanding its own influence over the rebellion even as the White House strains to limit it. New from Long War Journal:

Jihadist groups in Syria are “beginning to coalesce under a single command, and are following the lead of the Al Nusrah Front,” a US intelligence official familiar with the situation in Syria told The Long War Journal.

“Al Nusrah isn’t the only jihadist group operating in Syria, but as part of al Qaeda’s franchise it has access to its resources and expertise,” the intelligence official continued. “Al Nusrah has the cachet to organize the local jihadists and integrate them.”

“The influence of the jihadist groups in Syria, and their prowess on the battlefield, is being vastly underestimated,” the official said. “Al Qaeda, through the Nusrah Front, is working to unite these disparate jihadist groups, just as it did in Iraq.”

That’s from a post about the founding of the new Mujahedeen Shura Council incorporating 10 jihadi groups that are currently doing much of the heavy lifting on the battlefield. Which do you suppose will have more influence in Syria after Assad, the MSC or Obama’s weapons-less Syrian Opposition Council? To see what the medium-term, or even near-term, future holds, click here — but only if you have a strong stomach.

Al Nusrah even benefits from Assad’s dumb scud offensive. The weapons aren’t very accurate and therefore are unlikely to set the rebels back much, but as an ostentatious form of escalation (they’re capable of carrying chemical warheads) they’re bound to infuriate the Syrian population even more. And the angrier Syrians get, the less discriminating they’ll be about who’s doing the fighting on their behalf and what sort of government might follow the butcher of Damascus. The White House knows all of that, which is why it’s now scrambling to boost the profile of the Syrian Opposition Council and, eventually, to intervene somehow in the rebels’ defense. Exit question: Too little, too late?