WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration's decision to designate a major fighting faction within the Syrian opposition as a terrorist group came at a bad time for U.S. relations with the rebels, a former top State Department official told The Huffington Post on Tuesday.
Frederic Hof, who until September directed Syria policy at the State Department and is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said that the move to name Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, as a terrorist group was not a mistake, but its timing could have been better.
"The problem with the designation right now is not the content," Hof said. "The potential problem is how it will be seen by an internal Syrian opposition that is not satisfied with the level of support it has received from the U.S. to date."
Jabhat al-Nusra was identified Tuesday by the Obama administration as a terrorist outgrowth of al Qaeda in Iraq and formally barred from receiving American funds or other material assistance.
The designation comes at a time when the Syrian military opposition -- led in large part by hardline extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra -- is showing surprising gains across the north of the country and edging closer to the capital, Damascus.
Meanwhile, at a high-level international Friends of Syria meeting in Morocco this week, the United States is reportedly preparing to recognize a more moderate faction of opposition political figures as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people.
That diplomatic action could pave the way for increased legitimacy and funding for the Syrian political opposition, known as the Syrian Opposition Coalition. The terrorist designation of Jabhat al-Nusra may represent an attempt by the Obama administration to sideline the more radical elements of the opposition in favor of the preferred moderates.
Hof said that it would have been better if the terrorist designation had been made after these broader steps were taken to support moderate factions in the Syrian political opposition and in conjunction with an overt effort to supply the rebels with arms.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Tuesday's terrorist designation was met with disdain and frustration from members of the Syrian opposition -- some of whom had reportedly urged the U.S. to delay the move -- and applause from members of Assad's regime.
"Even the most determined secular Syrians look at the al-Nusra designation, and it takes some of the winds out of their sails, because America in essence is chopping out the military effort at the knees," said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. The extremist groups "are doing the best fighting," he added, offering a view shared by many other analysts.
On Monday, as news of the pending announcement trickled out, the Syrian minister of information, Omran al-Zoubi, told a Lebanese television station that the U.S. was finally acknowledging a claim made for almost two years by the Bashar Assad regime: that it was fighting not a popular uprising but a war waged by terrorist groups.
"When the U.S. places Jabhat al-Nusra on the international terrorist organizations list, that is because it realizes the nature of these groups which are fighting the Syrian armed forces," al-Zoubi said, according to CNN.
In a background briefing for reporters Tuesday, an Obama administration official denied that there was a contradiction between supporting the right of the Syrian opposition to take up arms against the Assad regime and condemning a particular group whose ideology was deemed to be extremist.
"Acknowledging the right of self-defense is not itself a justification for extremism," the official said. "Many people in Syria are not fighting for an extremist cause. Rather, they are fighting to have their dignity respected, they are fighting to have their human rights respected, and they do not want -- and the United States and the Friends of Syria do not want -- one terrorist regime to be replaced by a new extremist model."
But the move certainly highlighted the complexity of the uprising, including the interest the United States shares with some unsavory extremists in seeing the Assad regime fall.
"The decision to proscribe Jabhat al-Nusra is totally understandable," said Landis, who has long opposed American intervention in Syria, but recently endorsed supplying anti-aircraft weaponry to the rebels. "America has been in fact a passive ally of al Qaeda in the fight, they have been for two years, and they don't want to be anymore."
By designating Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist entity, Landis added, the United States is seeking to make it clear that while the administration supports the end result -- the fall of Assad -- it will not make the mistake of supporting just any group that shares that goal.
"America is trying to find a different path," Landis said. "It does not want to get into all-out civil war and just side with Sunnis against the Shia, because in a sense this is what America has been doing, and it's a slippery slope. It's very dangerous."
Hof, for his part, said that the terrorist designation might in fact make it easier for the U.S. to supply arms to the rebels, by clarifying which groups should not receive weaponry and helping to protect against the possibility that they might. He speculated that such a move was likely to take place in the not-too-distant future if Assad remained in power.
In the past, "the presence of these [extremist] groups weighed on decision-makers considering the question of giving aid to the opposition," he said.
"In a perfect world, Lakhdar Brahimi, with Russian and American support, would arrange a 'managed transition' with Assad yielding power to a unity government and leaving," Hof added, referring to the recently appointed U.N. envoy to Syria. "This could slow or even stop Syria's bleeding. But it's much more likely that this regime will be brought down through force of arms."