Britain and France are leading a push to designate the leading Syrian rebel force Jabhat al-Nusra as al-Qaeda controlled in an effort to strengthen the moderate opposition.
by Damien McElroy – Telegraph
Al-Nusra is to be included on the list of al-Qaeda backed terrorist groups that are subject to automatic global sanctions, The Daily Telegraph understands.
An image showing a captured Syrian army officer, centre, about to be executed by al-Nusra fighters in Raqa
Once the move is approved by a committee of the UN Security Council, al-Nusra will be subject to a broad range of sanctions, including an arms embargo, travel ban and assets freeze.
Officials from the leading European nations backing the Syria opposition’s struggle to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad hope the terrorist designation will be agreed within days.
America has already determined that al-Nusra, an Islamic fundamentalist militia that controls a swathe of eastern Syria, is a terrorist group. Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani, al-Nusra’s leader has pledged allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda.
Officials hope the global reach of UN sanctions will starve al-Nusra of funding and allow a clear distinction between it and other rebel units that do not share the al-Qaeda ideology.
“There is plenty of evidence from its own statements and other information that al-Nusra is an arm of al-Qaeda in Iraq,” said one source close to the deliberations. “It has already pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda there and has a lot of links with al-Qaeda. Therefore it must be subject to sanctions.
“We hope that this move will bolster the moderates who are under threat from the extremist. We know who the good guys are and we want to support them. This will help us get a clear mechanism in place to support those who are not subject to sanctions.”
Syria’s government had demanded the UN impose sanctions directly on al-Nusra, an outfit it has accused of carrying out more that 600 terrorist acts including destroying hospitals and schools.
In its own submission to the UN, the Assad regime said al-Nusra had desecrated holy places, assassinated religious figures, and abducted UN personnel.
Britain and France however made a separate application to the council’s al-Qaeda sanctions committee, which should be endorsed this week. Officials are said to hope a UN decision will help persuade EU countries to drop the bloc’s arms embargo on the Syrian rebels at a meeting later this month.
David Cameron defended the move to soften the arms embargo.
Speaking from the UN, the Prime Minister said: “If you don’t engage with the opposition then we shouldn’t be surprised if extremist elements in that opposition grow and that’s not what we want.”
US officials are reported to have encouraged other rebels, including Islamist groups, to take on al-Nusra.
After the capture of Raqa, the first provincial capital to fall to opposition fighters, members of the Islamist Farouq brigade and other opposition fighters clashed with al-Nusra for control following the withdrawal of regime troops.
The Farouq brigade has also been subject to its own allegations of barbarity after a leading commander was shown on video chewing on the innards of a dead regime soldiers.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) has moved to shore up its damaged reputation by vowing to punish the commander filmed cutting out the heart and organs of a regime soldier.
Khaled al-Hamad, the militia leader, has admitted and defended his actions, saying he was driven to them by footage on the dead soldier’s phone showing him “humiliating” a naked women and her two daughters.
The mainstream rebel FSA said: “Any act contrary to the values that the Syrian people have paid their blood and lost their homes (for) will not be tolerated, the abuser will be punished severely even if they are associated with the Free Syrian Army.”
It said field commanders had been instructed “to begin a prompt investigation into the matter in which the perpetrator will be brought to justice”.
Separately Syrian rebel launched a coordinated assault on the main prison in the northern city of Aleppo to free hundreds of regime opponents believed to be held in the facility, including al-Qaeda suspects.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels detonated two car bombs simultaneously outside the walls of the Aleppo central prison before trying to storm the facility.
Fierce clashes are taking place between President Bashar Assad’s troops and opposition fighters around the detention centre.