The administration is expected to announce the recognition of a relatively new Syrian opposition group Wednesday when American, European and Arab diplomats meet with its leaders in Morocco.
The action is part of fast-moving diplomacy to try to guard against chaos and collapse in Syria if rebel forces succeed in ousting or killing Assad. International efforts to support moderates as successors to Assad have taken on new urgency as rebels gain ground militarily.
In a further attempt to bolster moderates and marginalize extremists in the opposition, the State Department plans to designate a leading Syrian militant group as a terrorist organization. The designation, to be announced Tuesday, identifies Jabhat al-Nusra as a global terrorist organization and an affiliate of the group al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The two steps are aimed at building a broader and more moderate coalition for a post-Assad Syria. But the Obama administration remains opposed to U.S. military intervention in Syria or providing arms directly to the rebels.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland would not give details Monday about what diplomatic steps will be taken in Marrakesh, Morocco. But department officials said privately that the United States will join a growing lineup of countries throwing their support behind the opposition group.
The recognition of the Syrian National Coalition, or the SOC, is likely to stop short of naming the group as the legitimate ruler of Syria. That would theoretically give the group standing at the United Nations or elsewhere to ask for international military intervention. Instead, the State Department is likely to call the group the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
The genesis of the Syrian National Coalition was a proposal by prominent Syrian dissident Riad Seif to supplant a largely expatriate group, the Syrian National Council.
Arguing that the SNC would never win the support of opposition leaders inside Syria, Seif circulated his plan in Arab capitals and among internal opposition leaders. In October, the United States and European allies decided to shift support to the nascent group.
With Qatar publicly in the lead, they organized a meeting in early November that brought dozens of opposition leaders from inside Syria to Doha, the Qatari capital. Within two weeks, the new coalition had been recognized by France, Britain, Turkey, Spain, Italy, Persian Gulf Arab nations and others.
Last week, efforts were made to develop a similar cohesion among the rebel military groups. U.S., European and Arab security officials met in Istanbul with the disparate groups to shepherd them into a single military command that excluded extremists.
The administration has been slow to confer formal diplomatic approval on the opposition coalition in order to extract as many promises as possible that it will include representatives of Syria’s minority groups, including Christians, Druze and Alawites.
Notice of the designation was published Monday in the Federal Register. The notice indicated the paperwork was signed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Nov. 20. In separate amendments under the Immigration Act and an existing executive order, the designation prohibits Americans from having any financial dealings with the group and freezes any of its assets under U.S. control.
Recent reports from Syria suggest that extremists groups such as Jabhat are gaining ground in places where support for the opposition Free Syrian Army, the loose umbrella of rebel fighters, is wearing thin.
FSA officials estimate Jabhat fighters now account for 7.5 to 9 percent of total rebel forces, and that they are regarded as some of the fiercest front-line troops against the military force of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Administration officials say the Jabhat group consists largely of Syrian fighters who joined al-Qaeda in Iraq some years ago and have returned to their own country, along with additional Iraqis and other foreigners. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was one of the leading Sunni insurgent groups that attacked U.S. troops there.
The decision to list the group as an AQI alias both accelerated the designation process, and emphasized the administration’s desire to tie it directly to the al-Qaeda offshoot in neighboring Iraq.
Much of the group’s funding is believed to come from sympathetic financiers in the Persian Gulf. While the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar are directly funding the FSA, there are growing fears that some of that money also is going to the extremists.
Jabhat was not invited to a meeting Friday in Turkey, where rebel military commanders formed a unified command under the tutelage of American, European and Arab security officials.
The military command follows establishment last month of a new Syrian Opposition Coalition, a political structure that the administration plans to recognize at a meeting this week in Morocco as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Clinton will lead the U.S. delegation to the Wednesday meeting.
“What we want to do is use recognition as a way to demonstrate to them that we mean it when we say they have to stay organized,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity todiscuss internal administration deliberations. “We argue to ourselves that the more we demonstrate support for them, the more they’ll collaborate.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was to attend the Morocco meeting, but her office said an illness has forced her to cancel the trip. Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns will represent the administration.
The hope of the new coalition’s supporters is that it will present an appealing alternative for Syrians who continue to back Assad because of concern about the alternatives.
“We’re at an almost ‘build it and they will come’ stage,” said Fred Hof, who served as Clinton’s special adviser on Syria until two months ago. “There are still millions who have absolutely no love for this regime and no illusions but are still sitting on the fence because they don’t know what’s next.”
Nearly two years after the Syrian uprising began, recognition of the coalition is seen as a way to present a central mechanism for outside assistance to the opposition. “The goal is to get others to support the SOC and demonstrate that they’re the central authority,” the senior administration official said.
E.U. foreign ministers meeting Monday in Brussels were briefed by SOC head Mouaz al-Khatib, who is scheduled to present a detailed political transition plan to the larger Friends of Syria group in Morocco on Wednesday.
U.S. and allied officials have been pushing the opposition to outline a provisional government that includes officials from the Assad regime. Doing so could help avoid chaos of the kind that ensued in Iraq when invading U.S. troops ousted the entire government of Saddam Hussein, officials said.
The opposition is being warned off sectarian or ethnic reprisals, although some U.S. officials privately acknowledge that there will be some settling of scores.
Notice of the new terrorist designation for Jabhat al-Nusra was published Monday in the Federal Register. The move prohibits Americans from any financial dealings with the group and freezes any of its assets under U.S. control.
Administration officials say that Jabhat consists largely of Syrian fighters who joined al-Qaeda in Iraq years ago and have returned to their own country. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was one of the leading Sunni insurgent groups that attacked U.S. troops there.
The administration singled out Jabhat despite knowing that such a move partly bolsters Assad’s assertion that insurgents fighting his rule are “terrorists.”
The U.S. action also risks alienating Syrian rebels who are unaffiliated with al-Qaeda but see the well-organized Jabhat as an important ally in defeating Assad.
But U.S. officials say that blacklisting Jabhat could help clear the way for wider international support for more-moderate rebels.
Nuland would not confirm the blacklisting Monday, but she said the United States is concerned that Jabhat “is little more than a front for al-Qaeda in Iraq,” which has transferred some operations to Syria.