Opposition to the designation is only gaining momentum within Syria's anti-Assad groups. The Syrian National Council (SNC), which was the face of the revolution until being superseded by a new coalition, released a statement rejecting the move. The SNC, which still maintains considerable influence in opposition politics, goes on to explain that the Assad regime's massacres are the true terrorism in Syria today. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood also stated that the decision to designate Jabhat al-Nusra was "very wrong." The recently elected chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army, Brig. Gen. Salim Idriss, piled on, saying Jabhat al-Nusra was not a terrorist organization, and "depend on young, educated Syrians" for their efforts.
Syrians are also planning to take to the streets to express their solidarity with Jabhat al-Nusra this week. A coalition of coordinating committees and rebel battalions has called for demonstrations this Friday under the slogan "No to the Interference of America -- We Are All Jabhat al-Nusra." The statement originally had 29 signatories, but now contains more than 100.
Even more worrisome from the perspective of the United States, there are tentative signs that Jabhat al-Nusra has also been providing local services. While the designation signals that the U.S. government is committed to isolating the group, its heroics on the battlefield and its work to provide for the basic needs of the Syrian people could signal that it is becoming embedded within the social fabric of the population.
Jabhat al-Nusra's provision of social services was first highlighted in an Aug. 19 video released by the group, titled "Fulfillment of the Vow #2." The video shows the group's Lajna al-Ighatha ("Relief Committee") providing foodstuffs to individuals in rural areas surrounding the eastern city of Deir al-Zour. More recently, according to the Syrian news site al-Zaman al-Wasl, Jabhat al-Nusra provided more than 20,000 bundles of bread to individuals in Aleppo governorate after an acute crisis occurred. The Coordinating Council in Aleppo, a local civilian opposition body established in August 2011, also reported that Jabhat al-Nusra provided barrels of fuel for an Aleppo hospital to run generators after long power outages.
In a conference call today, a senior U.S. official explained the designation by saying that it was intended to "expose" Jabhat al-Nusra, and make it clear that the group's ideology "has no role in post-Assad Syria." If it succeeds in doing that, the decision will have been the correct one. But given the intense opposition to this move by many quarters of the opposition, the administration should rededicate itself to efforts that show it is on the side of the Syrian people -- not only by providing humanitarian aid to areas affected by Assad's scorched-earth policy, but also by recognizing the new Syrian opposition coalition and providing weapons to more moderate rebel groups.
The day after the Assad regime falls, all Syrian groups will struggle to implement their vision of their country's future -- and secular, liberal, or even "moderate" Islamist factions will be starkly at odds with radicals like Jabhat al-Nusra. Slapping a terrorist designation on Jabhat al-Nusra is only the first step in what must be a sustained effort to ensure that these extremists' support breaks down in the long term, and Syrians do not trade the Assad regime for a society run by jihadists.