The unique circumstances in Syria might be the reason for the differing approach.
Syrians have been demonstrating and fighting for more than 21 months to shed
the President Bashar al-Assad's yoke of tyranny. The rebellion has been radicalized over
time by the brutal tactics of the regime, creating a more Islamist fighting
force than when the armed rebellion first started gaining steam.
Getting Syria's rebels to disavow Jabhat al-Nusra may not be an easy task, however. As in Iraq, jihadists have been some of the most effective and audacious fighters against the Assad regime, garnering respect from other rebel groups in the process. Jabhat al-Nusra seems to have learned from the mistakes of al Qaeda in Iraq: It has not attacked civilians randomly, nor has it shown wanton disregard for human life by publicizing videos showing the beheading of its enemies. Even if its views are extreme, it is getting the benefit of the doubt from other insurgents due to its prowess on the battlefield.
So can the Obama administration isolate Jabhat al-Nusra? While some in the Syrian opposition would welcome a U.S. decision to slap a terrorist designation on the group, many will likely view this as another case of the U.S. government actually acting in support of Assad -- demonizing an element of the insurgency while simultaneously offering little assistance itself to topple the regime.
As a result, designating Jabhat al-Nusra could backfire on
the United States. In the short term, it might galvanize more support for the
group as Syrian rebels look to spite the Obama administration for its lack of
support. A terror designation could also provide even more legitimacy for
the organization amongst global jihadi supporters, leading even more foreigners
to join up with its cause.
In the long run, however, marginalizing Jabhat al-Nusra and its ideology is a fight that the United States -- and ordinary Syrians everywhere -- must win. Once the Assad regime falls, the rebels' shared military goals will disappear, and it will be the job of the Obama administration and mainstream rebel groups to isolate extremist groups. The outcome of this future fight is inextricably related to the Obama administration's efforts to help the rebels now. But without a swift end to the Assad regime and more engagement with the opposition, the United States won't have much leverage to shape Syria's future -- no matter what it decides to call Jabhat al-Nusra.