MARRAKECH, Morocco — The U.S. and the head of the new Syrian opposition coalition being feted at a conference in Morocco Wednesday publicly disagreed over designating a rebel group as terrorist, highlighting a key dilemma in overthrowing President Bashar Assad's regime.
Even as the U.S., Europe and its allies recognized the new opposition of the sole legitimate representatives of the Syrian people to succeed the Assad regime, they have to deal with the fact that some of the greatest battlefield successes are by extremist groups the West does not want to see running the country one day.
The Obama administration designated Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization Monday, a day before he recognized the newly formed Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people.
The Syrian opposition has been under international pressure for months to form a more representative and organized coalition that could receive international assistance in the battle against Assad. The organization they formed in Doha last November was then formally recognized by 114 countries at the fourth Friends of Syria conference held in Marrakech.
Deputy Secretary of State for the Middle East William Burns described the new coalition as the future for Syria that the U.S. wants — democratic, pluralist, inclusive and unified.
"The step that we took with regard to the designation of the al-Nusra Front raises an alarm about a very different kind of future for Syria, about a direction that a group like al-Nusra will try to take in Syria to impose its will and threaten the social fabric," he said, describing the group as a successor to al-Qaida in Iraq.
But the president of that coalition, Mouaz al-Khatib, who Burns invited to Washington at the conference, disagreed publicly with blacklisting one of the most successful fighting groups in the war against Assad.
"I say in all transparency that labeling one of the factions fighting the regime as a terrorist organization should be reconsidered," he said in his speech at the conference's opening. "We love our country very much, though we may not agree with all factions."
Jabhat al-Nusra has recently conquered a number of bases from the regime in the north and has claimed responsibility for a number of deadly effective bombings that have hit sensitive government institutions, like a blast near the Interior Ministry on Wednesday that took four lives.
According to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, several ministers from the Arab states also disagreed with the U.S. move.
In his speech, Khatib did condemn "all forms of extremism" and pledged to protect the countries many religious and sectarian minorities, including the Alawites, a Shiite offshoot from which the Assad family hails. He urged them to join the resistance against the regime.
"We call on them to accept our extended hand and work together against the violence of the regime," he said.
Violence in the 21-month civil war that has claimed 40,000 lives has taken on a sectarian tone in some cases, with the majority Sunnis arrayed against Alawites and other minorities remaining loyal to the regime — a stance encouraged by the Islamic militants among the rebels who consider Shiites heretic.
The conference did succeed in gaining international legitimacy for the new opposition coalition and has further isolated the Assad regime, making it, in the words of British Foreign Secretary William Hague, "the most significant" of all the conferences held to support the Syrian people in the past year.
Saudi Arabia pledged $100 million in humanitarian aid, with the U.S. following up with another $14 million in emergency medical care and winter supplies, including medicine, blankets and insulation.
The world's recognition of the Libyan opposition gave it a huge boost in the battle against Moammar Gadhafi last year and paved the way for Western airstrikes. Military intervention does not appear to be an immediate option for Syria, however, where the government has the powerful backing of Russia, China and Iran — though the conference pledged a swift international response if Assad unleashes his chemical weapons stocks against his own people.
According to Jon Wilks, the British special representative to the rebels, the purpose of the conference was not so much about military intervention or even collecting donations, but making sure the new opposition was building institutions that would let them channel the aid and administer the increasing amounts of territory under its control.
"The key point is they are setting up institutions and money is coming, it's a better situation than three months ago, they are happy, we are happy," he said, adding that farther down the road for the Cairo-based group would be a provisional government.
Suheir Atassi, one of the vice presidents of the opposition, said in her speech that these structures for delivering aid, free of religious or political affiliations, were now in place across liberated areas, so the most needy during Syria's cold winters get needed supplies.
The international recognition could also eventually pave the way for other sorts of aid, hinted Fabius, the French minister.
"The fact that the coalition, which asks for the right to defend itself, now is being recognized by (many) countries ... I think it is an important point," he said, expressing confidence that "2013 will be the year of the democratic and united Syria."
Despite the civil war grinding away in Syria, many of the delegates expressed confidence it would just be a matter of time before Assad's regime fell and there was a need to start planning for an aftermath.
To that end, the conference pledged to set up a post-war reconstruction fund for the country to be administered by Germany and the United Arab Emirates.
"With the fighting in Damascus, I believe we are coming close to the end, and there is a shift in the balance of power in Syria," Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem said at the closing news conference. "We are coming to the point of talking about the post-Assad era."
According to a representative from Human Rights Watch, there is a strong chance the current human rights violations will pale in comparison to those when the regime falls, which might involve reprisals against former government supporters and wholesale sectarian massacres on the order of Iraq — especially if groups like the now blacklisted Jabhat al-Nusra remain powerful.
The new Syrian opposition has to take into account how they are going to manage justice in the "new Iraq," cautioned Tamara al-Rifai of the rights group.
"We are calling on the Syrian delegation to include transitional justice in any political plan they are doing and calling on the international community to help support that," she said.