The Assad regime’s brutality has created an environment inside Syria that al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) is working hard to exploit. In an effort to establish a long-term presence in Syria, AQI is trying to rebrand itself under the guise of a group called al-Nusrah Front. By fighting alongside armed Syrian opposition groups, al-Nusrah Front members are seeking to hijack the Syrian struggle for their own extremist ends. Today, the United States announced that it will list al-Nusrah Front as another alias used by the Foreign Terrorist Organization AQI, and will designate it under Executive Order 13224. These actions against al-Nusrah Front underscore its connection to AQI so that everyone, especially the Syrian people, can distinguish between armed opposition groups that are fighting for a more unified, just, and pluralistic Syria and terrorist elements whose extremism has no place in a post-Asad Syria.
The al-Nusrah Front was formed by AQI and has pledged allegiance to its leader, Abu Du’a. Over the last year, AQI leaders have dispatched personnel, money, and materiel from Iraq to Syria to attack Syrian regime forces. Al-Nusrah Front has claimed responsibility for nearly 600 attacks –– in most major city centers. These acts, which have killed and wounded hundreds of Syrian civilians, do not carefully target the regime. Nusrah doesn’t care if it kills civilians.
The Syrian people have shown extraordinary courage over the past 20 months in their struggle against the Assad regime’s brutality, and their aspirations must not be derailed by those who wish to replace one dictator with another form of tyranny. Al-Nusrah Front does not represent the ideals of the vast majority of the Syrian opposition. This is not about Islam. Millions of Muslims live in the United States. We have Muslims serving throughout our government. Instead, we differentiate between opposition members who attack civilians, violate basic human rights, or promote sectarianism, and those who have chosen the destructive path of al-Qa’ida, whose ideology promises more violence, disunity among the Syrian people, and a total disrespect for human life.
Al-Nusrah Front has declared publicly its hope to impose an Islamic state. It rejects the very principles of freedom for which Syrians now are struggling. Al-Qa’ida’s devastating violence in Iraq should give pause to any opposition member weighing the costs of affiliating with al-Nusrah Front. As the Syrian opposition works towards greater cohesion and continues pursuing their legitimate aspirations, the Syrian opposition must consider carefully from whom they accept assistance.
As we take these actions, I want to be clear: President Assad and his inner circle bear the overwhelming responsibility for the violence that continues to escalate inside of Syria. They are responsible for the overwhelming majority of the deaths and destruction in Syria. It is for this reason that the United States continues to work to isolate the regime, cut off its finances, and train Syrians who can investigate its crimes. As part of these ongoing efforts to support the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people as they seek to free themselves from the oppression of the Assad regime, we also announced today our sanctions against two pro-Asad militias, Shabiha and Jaysh al-Sha'bi. These armed militias operate under the control of the Syrian government and have been instrumental in the Assad regime’s campaign of terror and violence against the Syrian people. The sooner Assad leaves, the better it is for the Syrian people and the region and for the world.
We call on all responsible actors to speak out against and distance themselves from al-Nusrah Front, Shabiha, Jaysh Al-Shaib, and other violent extremists who seek and intend to hijack this Syrian struggle. Assad must go – but the new government that replaces him should not be a new group of tyrants who reject the tolerance that made Syria the unique and remarkable country that it was and can be again.
This week’s Friends of the Syrian People meeting hosted by the Government of Morocco will demonstrate the international community’s growing resolve to bring about a Syrian-led solution to the crisis in Syria and to support the process that the Syrian people have begun. It also marks the first time that representatives from the Syrian Opposition Coalition will participate. The American people and our international partners stand with you during this struggle. This is your revolution, your country, and your future – not al-Qa’ida’s.
*Robert Ford is an American career diplomat, currently serving as the United States Ambassador to Syria.
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