The United States has formally designated the Al Nusra Front, the militant Syrian rebel group, as a foreign terrorist organization.
The move, which was expected, is aimed at building Western support for the rebellion against the government of President Bashar al-Assad by quelling fears that money and arms meant for the rebels would flow to a jihadi group.
The designation was disclosed on Monday in the Federal Register, just before an important diplomatic meeting in Morocco on the political transition if Mr. Assad is driven from power. That meeting is scheduled for Wednesday.
The notice in the register lists the Al Nusra front as one of the “aliases” of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
In practical terms, the designation makes it illegal for Americans to have financial dealings with the group. It is intended to prompt similar sanctions by other nations, and to address concerns about a group that could further destabilize Syria and harm Western interests.
France, Britain, Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council have formally recognized the Syrian opposition. European Union foreign ministers met Monday with the head of the Syrian opposition coalition, Ahmed Mouaz al-Khatib, in Brussels.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that he hoped the European Union would soon grant the group full recognition.
The Al Nusra Front comprises only a small minority of the Syrian rebels, but it includes some of the rebellion’s most battle-hardened and effective fighters.
“Extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra are a problem, an obstacle to finding the political solution that Syria’s going to need,” the American ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, said last week in an appearance hosted by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a nongovernmental group.
But a growing number of anti-government groups — including fighters in the loose-knit Free Syrian Army that the United States is trying to bolster — have signed petitions or posted statements online in recent days expressing support for the Nusra Front. In keeping with a tradition throughout the uprising of choosing themes for Friday protests, the biggest day for demonstrations because it coincides with Friday Prayer, many called for this Friday’s title to be “No to American intervention — we are all Jabhet al-Nusra.”
Many Syrian fighters consider the Nusra Front a key ally because of its fighters’ bravery and reliable supply of money and arms. It has never come under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, shunning the Western aid and input that other groups have sought, but it coordinates closely with many who do. Adding to the complication is that some groups in the Free Syrian Army have similar ideologies, follow the strict Salafist interpretation of Islam, and count among them fighters who joined the insurgency in Iraq – though they are not known to share the Nusra Front’s direct organizational connections to Al Qaeda in Iraq.
The Nusra Front celebrated another apparent battlefield achievement on Monday, declaring it had captured part of a large base outside the commercial hub of Aleppo. Activist groups and video posted online said that it had fought alongside other Islamic battalions including the Mujahedeen Shura Council and the Muhajireen Group.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group that tracks events in Syria through a network of activists in the country, said that the rebels had taken control of the command center of the sprawling base and that many soldiers had fled. Videos showed gunmen taking possession of tanks and anti-aircraft weapons.
The decision to designate the group, the register noted, was made by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Nov. 20, in consultation with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner.
The State Department appeared to delay the publication of the decision to synchronize it with the expected announcement in Morocco that the United States will formally recognize the Syrian opposition.
The United States closed its embassy in Damascus in February because of escalating violence in the capital.