(WASHINGTON) — The choice to label a Syrian rebel group as a terrorist organization while simultaneously recognizing the Syrian opposition as the country’s legitimate government is not a coincidence, President Obama said Tuesday.
In an exclusive interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters, the president said that while he stands with Syria’s Opposition Coalition, there is no place for extremist groups like the rebel al-Nusrah Front.
“Not everybody who’s participating on the ground in fighting Assad are people who we are comfortable with,” Obama told Walters. “There are some who, I think, have adopted an extremist agenda, an anti-U.S. agenda. And we are going to make clear to distinguish between those elements.”
On Tuesday State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland detailed the organization’s crimes in a statement announcing the terror designation and sanctions on the group.
In a background briefing with reporters, senior Obama administration officials stressed that the designation of al-Nusrah is not a reflection of the administration’s policy on Syria’s opposition, which the U.S. is expected to recognize following this week’s Friends of Syria meeting in Morocco.
The official added that the administration supports the Free Syrian Army, which is much larger and has a broader coalition of opposition groups.
Experts and officials say the strength and numbers of extremist groups in Syria have grown as the conflict has dragged on. A year ago, al-Nusrah carried out the first suicide bombing, and dozens have followed. Videos of executions have surfaced online, notably several weeks ago when pleading Syrian soldiers were piled onto the floor and shot. Administration officials did acknowledge they are concerned about the increasing influence radical Islamists are having on Syria’s opposition movement.
In practical terms, the designation means that Syrian opposition leaders will not be able to work with al-Nusrah and still receive U.S. support. The administration’s announcement also served to “out” the group to Syrians who may be sympathetic, said the officials.
“It means that as al-Nusrah Front tries to wrap itself in the legitimacy of the opposition that does reflect the Syrian’s people desires, we have called them out, and for those who are seeking to support the legitimate opposition of the Syrian people, we have drawn a bright line,” said one official.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Daniella Diaz, CNN
Sarah Anderson, Deseret News
Stephen Collinson, CNN