Following the ranks of France, Britain, Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council, President Barack Obama publicly asserted his recognition of the Syrian Opposition Coalition yesterday:
[w]e’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….So we will provide them recognition and obviously with that recognition comes responsibilities on the part of that coalition. It is a big step.
The president’s recognition of rebel forces came soon after the U.S. blacklisted Nusra Front for the People of the Levant, which the State Department said was an alias for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The consequences of such a designation include:
…a prohibition against knowingly providing, or attempting or conspiring to provide, material support or resources to, or engaging in transactions with, al-Nusrah Front, and the freezing of all property and interests in property of the organization that are in the United States, or come within the United States or the control of U.S. persons.
However, coupling its recognition of the Syrian opposition with the blacklisting of Nusra Front may not be the “shot in the arm” the U.S. intended for anti-Assad fighters. First, as the conflict enters its second year, frustration with what are perceived as “half steps” — e.g., public recognition with no military backing — on the part of the U.S. adds to anti-American sentiments, which may potentially — and, in some ways, have begun to — bolster such groups as Nusra Front. In fact, several groups have already expressed their support for Nusra Front.
Second, Nusra Front is perceived as effective and a good source of arms. A report in October demonstrated that most of the arms shipments from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for which the U.S. provided intelligence and addition “back end” support, were going to jihadist groups and not the groups Western diplomats look upon kindly. In addition to the steady supply of arms and money, they’re some of the most effective fighters in the uprising. Alienating them is not only unpopular, but it may also add to the difficulties facing other rebel groups if the U.S. doesn’t step up its game.
In other words, the question is: What effect will this recognition of (some) rebel groups while sidelining others have on both the conflict in Syria as well as U.S. interests? With rising frustration with the U.S. in the region, is it too late to woo the opposition? On one hand, as Micah Zenko at CFR points out, “[t]he United States is both damned when it does, and damned when it does not, largely because it (often) rhetorically and (selectively) practically assumes a role of global leadership.” On the other, there’s certainly something to be said for the U.S. saying something of substance about Syria, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this came after an election and the day before the Friends of Syria conference in Morocco.
To wrap up, here’s a clip of the president’s interview with Walters from 11 December 2012.