U.S. Labels Syrian Opposition Affiliate As Terrorist Group

State Dept. hopes to sideline renamed al Qaeda in Iraq.

Rebels or terrorists? Fighters clean their weapons and check ammunition on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, Nov. 14, 2012.

Syrian Rebels clean their weapons and check ammunition on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria.

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The U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations has a new member, added in an attempt to keep an al Qaeda affiliate fighting in Syria from masquerading as part of the legitimate opposition force, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.

The al-Nusrah Front, which has conducted nearly 600 attacks in Syria in the last year, is now considered an alias for al Qaeda in Iraq, according to a statement from State Dept. spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

The classification comes as an amendment to AQI's existing status on the Foreign Terrorist Organization list and Executive Order 13224, which allows the U.S. to interrupt terrorist groups' efforts.

"The violent, sectarian vision of al-Nusrah is at odds with the aspirations of the Syrian people," says Nuland, "including the overwhelming majority of the Syrian opposition."

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Al-Nusrah Front's fatal assaults have ranged from roughly 40 suicide attacks to the use of small arms and IEDs. Most have occurred in highly populated cities, such as Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs.

Its aliases also include Jabhat al-Nusrah, Jabhet al-Nusra, The Victory Front, and Al-Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant. AQI is controlled by emir Abu Du'a, also designated as a terrorist, who instructed al-Nusrah emir Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani to start Syrian operations.

"Through these attacks, al-Nusrah has sought to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition while it is, in fact, an attempt by AQI to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes," says Nuland.

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"This is a step the U.S. had to take…to pave the way for real support," says Joseph Holliday, senior research analyst with the Institute for the Study of War. "This is a way of drawing a clear distinction."

The U.S. has been hesitant in throwing its support behind the Syrian opposition coalition, which was already endorsed by the U.K. and France.

"I don't think there's really a whole lot the U.S. can do through these sanctions to target al-Nusrah, but it's a necessary step," he says. "It's a firewall that we're putting in place before moving forward with supporting the opposition in a meaningful way."

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"It will be absolutely critical, what happens in the coming weeks," he adds. "Not only recognition of the new council, but what we can actually do to provide support for them."

Reports out of Aleppo indicate Syrians need food and medical supplies, says Holliday, not weapons and ammunition. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was scheduled to fly to Morocco Tuesday to join a Friends of Syria meeting, aimed at setting up the framework for a formalized opposition council that can help the U.S. import necessary supplies.

Clinton may be sidelined from participation due to a stomach virus, CNN reports.

The Syrian people feel the U.S. has largely ignored their plight, sources tell U.S. News, despite the roughly $250 million in humanitarian and non-violent support funneled into the country. Much of those resources go through interlocutors such as NGOs, or to foreign countries bordering Syria to address the needs of refugees.

"The significance of the shift would be -- and this is a key point -- is making sure support is going directly to the new Syrian opposition coalition, so they are the ones that are reaching directly down to the political coalitions on the ground," says Holliday.

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Paul D. Shinkman is a national security reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at pshinkman@usnews.com.