Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Head of new U.S.-backed Syrian coalition endorses rebel faction linked to al-Qaida

AMMAN, Jordan — Right after the United States formalized its backing of a new Syrian opposition group Wednesday, the mutual unease underpinning the partnership surfaced as the group's leader openly criticized the United States for declaring the rebel movement's Nusra Front a terrorist group linked to al-Qaida in Iraq.

Sheik Mouaz al-Khatib, head of the Syrian National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, asked the Obama administration to rethink its labeling of the Nusra Front, stressing that the militant faction was integral to the fight against the regime of President Bashar Assad.

"The logic under which we consider one of the parts that fights against the Assad regime as a terrorist organization is a logic one must reconsider," al-Khatib told reporters in Marrakesh, Morocco, after more than 100 nations agreed to recognize his group as the "legitimate representative" of the Syrian people.

Al-Khatib's tacit endorsement of Nusra was echoed by many rebel commanders inside Syria and signals a thorny road ahead as U.S. officials attempt to disentangle nationalist or relatively moderate rebel factions from the Islamist extremists who have become perhaps the leading military force in the nearly two-year fight to topple Assad.

"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," added al-Khatib, a Muslim cleric who has complained in the past that blueprints for a post-Assad transition were too secular.

U.S. officials did not react to al-Khatib's statements, but Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said in Morocco that he had been invited to visit Washington soon.

Burns also announced a $14 million aid package to assist millions of Syrians who have been forced from their homes by fighting and now face the onset of winter. The package includes "essential medicines, nutritional supplements for over 200,000 children, and blankets and boots for thousands of families," he said.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Nusra's terror designation was intended for two audiences: ordinary Syrians, on whom the United States is counting to isolate extremist rebel factions, and the United States' "partners who have made choices other than ours in terms of the way they are supporting the opposition" — code for allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who have been providing weapons and money to Islamist rebel groups.

But the policy seems to be backfiring in Syria.

"It has made them more popular," said Ammar Dandash, a Syrian journalist from the northern province of Idlib.

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