From The New York Times:
Seeking Allies Among Syrian Rebels, U.S. Instead Finds Hostility
BEIRUT, Lebanon — As the United States tries attempts to rally international support for the Syrian rebellion, trying to herd the opposition into a shadow government that it can recognize and assist, on the ground in Syria it faces an entirely different problem: Much of the rebellion is hostile toward America.
Frustration mounted for months as the United States sat on the sidelines, and peaked this week when it blacklisted the Nusra Front, one of the uprising’s most effective fighting forces, calling it a terrorist organization. The move was aimed at isolating the group, which according to Iraqi and American officials has operational ties to Al Qaeda’s franchise in Iraq.
But interviews with a wide range of Syrian rebels and activists show that for now, the blacklisting has appeared to produce the opposite. It has united a broad spectrum of the opposition — from Islamist fighters to liberal and nonviolent activists who fervently oppose them — in anger and exasperation with the United States. The dissatisfaction is over more than just the blacklisting, and raises the possibility that now, just as the United States is stepping up efforts to steer the outcome in Syria, it may already be too late.
More than 100 antigovernment organizations and fighting battalions have called online for demonstrations on Friday under the slogan, “No to American intervention — we are all Jabhet al-Nusra,” a reference to the group’s Arabic name.
Syrians across the political spectrum say the United States allowed more than 40,000 people to die in the 21-month conflict. Supporters of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, call the uprising a creation of the West and its allies. His opponents excoriate the United States for failing to provide arms and leaving them to perish — and have begun to express a growing wariness of American involvement in Syria’s political future.
“Anti-American sentiment is growing, because the Americans are messing up in bigger ways lately,” said Nabil al-Amir, an official spokesman for the rebel military council for Damascus and its suburbs, one of the committees that the United States and its allies are trying to coax into a unified rebel command. With every step to correct earlier mistakes, he said, “they make a bigger mess.”
Liberals activists blame American inaction for giving jihadists a leading role in the conflict. Rival rebel groups have declared solidarity with the Nusra Front, and Islamists have congratulated it on its new distinction. And seemingly everyone accuses the United States of hypocrisy for not putting a terrorist label on Mr. Assad, whose forces have killed far more civilians than any rebel group.
The United States scrambled on Tuesday to contain the damage, issuing a more complete justification for blacklisting the Nusra Front and stressing that the group has killed Syrian civilians in more than 40 suicide bombings. And it announced a new wrinkle: It is also blacklisting pro-government militias accused of killing civilians as part of “the Assad regime’s campaign of terror and violence.”
The militias, a Treasury Department statement said, would include what it called “the Shabiha” and Jaish al-Sha’bi, or the People’s Army, which it said was created with the help of Mr. Assad’s allies Iran and the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah and was modeled on Iran’s Basij militia.
But it may be hard to define who exactly is blacklisted under the heading of “shabiha,” which is not the name of an organization but a catchall term for pro-government gangs. The People’s Army is a nascent group, an apparent effort to turn those informal militias into a paramilitary organization.
Criticizing America has become a favorite sideline of antigovernment activists. Some have even questioned the sincerity of President Obama’s recent warning that Mr. Assad would be crossing “a red line” if he used chemical weapons on Syrians.
At a recent demonstration, solemn-eyed boys posed for a photograph that spread online with the title “Red line or green light?” They held a poster of a traffic light, emblazoned with an American flag, shining green for Mr. Assad as he drives a truck laden with chemical weapons.
Demonstrators in Kafr Nabl, a northern Syrian town known lately for its witty antigovernment slogans, quickly mocked the blacklisting with a poster that showed a cartoonish Mr. Assad, with jutting ears, a diabolical grimace and a bloody dagger in each hand, standing over a pile of corpses. One of the dead held a black banner with an Islamic slogan as Mr. Obama, his back to the massacre, pointed at the banner and said, “Terrorist!”
One exile opposition leader, Burhan Ghalioun, even suggested that by rushing under American pressure, the newly formed opposition body, the Syrian National Coalition, had undermined its own credibility, promising and then failing so far to form a shadow government ahead of international talks in Marrakesh, Morocco, on Wednesday.
As opposition leaders gathered in Marrakesh on Tuesday, Farouk Tayfour, a senior official of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, a powerful force in the coalition, called the United States’ blacklisting move “very wrong and too hasty.”
An activist who declined to give his name for safety reasons said, “All populations resent those who abandon them and then come at the critical moments to steal their victory.” .
An activist in Douma, outside Damascus, said flatly, “America supports the regime.”
The blacklisting of the Nusra Front cost America support in the northern province of Idlib, said Ahmed Kadour, an activist there who opposes Islamist fighting groups. He said the United States was trying ineptly to solve a problem it created.
“If they had intervened and helped us from the very beginning,” Mr. Kadour said, “we wouldn’t have reached this point.”
One of the sorest points for some Syrians is that a unified military command formed last week at American behest includes Islamist battalions that fight alongside the Nusra Front and share much of its ideology.
The distinction, some believe, is that Nusra Front has never offered to come under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army, saying it does not need or want Western aid, while the other groups are backed by American allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
A secular civilian activist in Idlib said that one such group, Ansar al-Sham, is responsible for many abuses that have soured some Syrians on the rebels, like the commandeering of bakeries and hospitals, but described the Nusra Front as “professional and meticulous.”
The activist said that Saudi Arabia was the go-between connecting Ansar and the United States. He said he suspected the decision to blacklist the Nusra Front but not Ansar was either “sheer idiocy” or part of “a political deal.”
“The Syrian population now hates America a lot,” said an activist who posts online material for the Damascus military council, part of the American-backed rebel structure, whose nom de guerre is Mosaab Abu Qatada. It was not always that way, the activist added. “When Obama said that Bashar should leave, some people here held American flags and sent him their greetings,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s all lies and hypocrisy.”