The U.S. government has formally designated the Al Nusrah Front, a jihadist group working to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad, as a terrorist organization. Monday's designation bars Americans from financial dealings with Al Nusrah – which Washington says is an alias for al-Qaida in Iraq – and has reconstituted itself in Syria.
The announcement came just hours after Al Nusrah and allied jihadist organizations captured a critical Syrian Army target, the Sheikh Suleiman military base in Aleppo province. The news is regarded as a blow to Assad and the major non-jihadist force fighting to overthrow him, the Free Syrian Army. The latter organization was not involved in the capture of the base, which came after several months of fierce fighting.
Media reports said that many of the victorious fighters were from Central Asia and other Arab countries and described themselves as mujahideen. An estimated 300-400 Syrian soldiers defended Sheikh Suleiman before it fell, and the jihadists raised al-Qaida's black flag during the final battle.
The base was rumored to be part of the Assad government's covert chemical weapons efforts. One defecting Syrian Army soldier said Sheikh Suleiman contained a secret research facility whose purpose was unknown to the rank and file. For its part, the regime warned that its jihadist foes could use chemical weapons after the Al Nusrah Front captured a chlorine factory near Aleppo last week.
Al Nusrah "has by far taken the lead among the jihadist groups in executing suicide and other complex attacks against the Syrian military. The terror group has now claimed credit for 42 of the 51 terrorist attacks that have taken place in Syria in the past 12 months," the Long War Journal reports.
Last month, Al Nusrah joined 13 other jihadist groups based in Aleppo in calling for the establishment of an Islamic state. It has also conducted numerous joint operations with the Free Syrian Army. In October, for example, Al Nusrah and the FSA joined with Chechen fighters to overrun a Syrian air defense and Scud missile base in Aleppo.
Recent events underscore the major role that other radical Islamist groups are playing in the Syrian opposition.
The fall of the Sheikh Suleiman base occurred "just days after the supposedly secular rebels established a joint military command that is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and individuals linked to the various Salafist-jihadist groups," according to the LWJ. It excluded senior military officers who defected from the Assad regime and commanders who clashed with the Brotherhood and the Salafists.
The Al Nusrah Front has not taken a clear position on participating in the joint command. Read more about the terror group's activities here.