When US designated the Syrian rebel group, al-Nusrah Front, as a terrorist organization on Dec. 11, 2012, it may have inadvertently jeopardized prospects for stable political transition in the future.
Syrian civilians and armed groups not only blasted the designation, but the Islamic factions are showing particularly hostile reactions against both the US and allied opposition, presumably the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.
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Throughout the nearly two-year revolution against Assad's regime, rebel factions have appeared united in efforts, despite a diverse array of ideological differences ranging from secular nationalism to Islamic jihad.
Despite differences, it is not surprising that even the Syrian National Coalition has criticized the terrorism designation, given that al-Nusrah Front has proven itself as an effective component of the revolution with a number of renowned victories to account for. US applied the terror designation the day after al-Nusrah captured a key military base from Assad's forces near Aleppo.
On the same day the US decided who the villains are among the rebels, it also officially declared recognition of the Syrian National Coalition as the sole representatives of the Syrian people and the revolution. The coalition was formed a month earlier, and is composed of mostly secular nationalists and the Free Syrian Army, the most prominent paramilitary faction.
Legitimate Resistance Becomes Terrorism
Syrian people protested in the streets under the slogan: "There is no terrorism in Syria except that of Assad."
The US has essentially divided the rebels by choosing between allies and villains among the opposition. In doing so, the US has clearly lost a level of legitimacy among the Syrian people, who reacted with protests in the streets, by the thousands, under the slogan: "There is no terrorism in Syria except that of Assad."
One person held up a sign stating "Thank you to all the terrorists in Syria who are fighting Assad." Even the Christian leader of the Syrian National Council, George Sabra, requested the US to remove al-Nusrah's terror designation, while acknowledging their legitimate sacrifices and gains on the battlefield.
As US loses credibility among Syrians, the Syrian National Coalition appears to also be vulnerable by appearing less sovereign and more illegitimate as the beneficiary of the US. Islamic factions have reacted by unifying and declaring their own coalitions and counter agenda. Five Islamic battalions responded with a video decree posted on the internet declaring promises to establish an Islamic Caliphate government in Syria. The speaker described it as a solution to "end decades of colonization and enslavement," and that they would "object to the conspiracies of the plotters, both internal and external, and to bring down their wicked plan" of a Democratic state.
The speaker boldly offers a verbal invitation for fighters of the Western-favored factions, presumably the Free Syrian Army, to change their course of action and join their Islamic struggle by releasing themselves from ties to "these new agents."
"And we warn them against offering compromises in their religion, for the sake of receiving money and weapons. Because certainly, therein lies their destruction," he continues. Such statements, in concern of US interference in Syria, paint a grim picture of potential calamity and feuding among the Syrian opposition, either before or after the collapse of Assad's regime.
Sovereign Mujahideen and Subservient Secularists
Furthermore, on the same day that the US designated al-Nusrah as a terrorist organization, ten Islamic opposition groups declared unity and the formation of the Mujahideen Shura Council, potentially playing a counter-authority role in face of the Syrian National Coalition. 29 opposition groups, both fighters and civilian committees, also signed a petition composed of the slogan, "No to American intervention” and “We are all al-Nusrah."
In the eyes of the Islamic factions, the Syrian opposition appears to be chiseled into two distinguishable camps: the secularists that are subservient to the West, and themselves, the sovereign Islamic mujahideen.
One could pose the argument that al-Nusrah Front and other Islamic groups may have been confident in pursuing their own plans long before, and the US terrorism designation was a necessary reaction. However, Egypt poses a strong case to challenge such preconceptions, with many Islamic activists, Salafis and government-designated terrorists changing their political recourse by participating in Egypt's democratic transition. It was a clear change in stance from previous times, when participation in democratic elections was deemed un-Islamic. With the advent of a strong democratic foundation in Egypt, it has become the best platform for pursuing their endeavors, even if the agenda is an Islamic one.
By designating al-Nusrah as a terrorist entity, US may have derailed strong prospects for all factions in Syria to take part in democratic transition, representative of all Syrians. At least in Egypt, the tug of war between secular and Islamic players is taking place within the democratic arena for the most part. If Syria's Islamic opposition cannot be accepted as legitimate components of the revolution, then it is likely they will also be estranged to a democratic arena, alternatively pushing them into challenging the democratic transition itself.
More Political Freedom Equals Less Violence
US’ action provides Assad the potential to legitimize even more aggressive military onslaughts, by laying claim that they actually are confronting terrorists.
Naturally, in such circumstances, if a group of people are not allowed to operate within the sphere of politics, they will revert back to violence and use force to have their way. The 1993 Oslo Accords make a strong case when Yassir Arafat's designated terror organization deviated from decades of fighting against Israel by taking advantage of opportunities for political sovereignty.
When Palestine's Hamas faction decided to take role in democratic politics in 2005, they also showed signs of bold compromises and potential moderation in terms of violence. Firstly, they accepted the 1967 borders for a future state, followed by officially abandoning the use of suicide bombings. Their reversion to violence could possibly be attributed to the sanctions Israel and US placed against them following their electoral victory, thereby greatly severing their political capacity.
If US interests desire a stable, free, and democratic Syria, then it is a wonder why they could not have waited to observe the course of action al-Nusrah's Syrian members would pursue during their political transition, especially if other Islamic factions were also hopping on the bandwagon. If al-Nusrah challenged the democratic transition in such a climate, then the US administration would certainly have a more practical option for terrorism designations later on.
Instead, the early terrorism designation has caused Islamic factions to unite with al-Nusrah into their own coalition, segregating the Syrian opposition greatly. In doing so, grave risks for the possibility of a second civil war or infighting are abound. It also provides Assad the potential to legitimize even more aggressive military onslaughts, by laying claim that they actually are confronting terrorists.
The Way Out
Further segregation of the Islamic opposition and secular nationalists will only jeopardize political reconciliation and add fuel to the fire.
There are number of actions the Western-backed opposition can pursue to maintain stability in the current circumstances and after Assad falls. First, they must continually demand the US removal of al-Nusrah Front's terrorist designation, even if requests are futile; at least it will send the message to Islamic factions that unity is still a preferable option, and a viable one.
They will also need to provide clear assurances that all Syrian participants in the revolution will have equal opportunities and representation during the democratic transition, including those who aspire for Islamic principles. Further segregation of the Islamic opposition and secular nationalists will only jeopardize political reconciliation and add fuel to the fire.
To pose these incentives successfully, the Syrian National Coalition must acknowledge that al-Nusrah's terrorism designation will not be recognized by a sovereign and free Syria, and will in no way affect their capacity to participate within the democratic sphere. Only then, al-Nusrah, and its newly unified Islamic factions, may see political reconciliation as a stronger incentive to pursue their interests, as opposed to pursuing a full-scale challenge to a democratic state.
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