MARRAKECH, Morocco (Reuters) - The leader of Syria’s opposition coalition urged the United States on Wednesday to reconsider its decision to designate the militant Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist group, saying religion was a legitimate motive for Syrian rebels.
“The decision to consider a party that is fighting the regime as a terrorist party needs to be reviewed,” Mouaz Alkhatib told a “Friends of Syria” meeting in Morocco, where Western and Arab states granted full recognition to the coalition seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
“We might disagree with some parties and their ideas and their political and ideological vision. But we affirm that all the guns of the rebels are aimed at overthrowing the tyrannical criminal regime.”
Alkhatib also called on Syria’s Alawite minority on Wednesday to launch a campaign of civil disobedience against Assad, an Alawite facing a mainly Sunni Muslim uprising against his rule.
The United States designated the Jabhat al-Nusra (Nusra Front) as a foreign terrorist organization and said it was trying to hijack the revolt on behalf of al Qaeda in Iraq.
Without naming al-Nusra, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns urged Alkhatib’s coalition to “take a firm stand against extremists” who could commandeer the revolt.
“Transition is coming one way or another,” he told the meeting in the city of Marrakech. Burns invited Alkhatib and others in the coalition to visit Washington for talks at the earliest opportunity.
But later, when asked whether Washington would consider Alkhatib’s view to reconsider designation of al-Nusra, Burns said that the vision for Syria’s future, which the coalition represents, is democratic and pluralistic.
“The step we took with regards to the designation of al-Nusra Front raises an alarm about a very different kind of future for Syria - about a direction that a group, in this case al Nusra, would try to take Syria to impose its will and to try and to threaten the social fabric of Syria.”
The decision to blacklist al-Nusra, an important fighting force in the uprising, has already triggered criticism from the powerful Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. A senior Brotherhood official said it was wrong and hasty.
“They are seen as (a group that) can be relied on to defend the country and the civilians against the regular army and Assad’s gangs,” Brotherhood deputy leader Farouq Tayfour told Reuters on Tuesday.
Alkhatib said it was “no shame” if Syrian rebels were driven by religious motives to topple Assad. “Religion that does not liberate its people, and does not eliminate repression, is not authentic religion,” he said.
“The fact that the military movement is Islamic in its color is generally positive. Jihad in the path of God has long been a fundamental motivator for human rights.”
“We send a direct message to the Alawite brethren. The Syrian revolution is extending its hand to you, so extend your hand back and start civil disobedience against the regime because it repressed you like it repressed us,” he said.
Many Alawites, who have remained mostly loyal to Assad throughout the 20-month-old uprising in which more than 40,000 people have been killed, fear the rebels would exact brutal revenge on their community if they seize power.
But Alkhatib, a Sunni Muslim former preacher at the ancient Umayyad mosque in Damascus, said the opposition coalition which he leads was committed to a pluralistic future “based on justice, equality and respect for human rights and preserving (Syria‘s) unique social fabric”.
“This coalition... was born to restore hope and smiles of the Syrian people. Its objective is to bring down the Syrian regime and prepare for a national conference that will be inclusive and that will guide Syria towards the future.”
He said Assad’s opponents would hold the world - and Assad’s ally Russia in particular - “fully responsible, if the regime uses chemical weapons against our people”.
Alkhatib, elected last month as leader of the National Coalition for Opposition Forces and the Syrian Revolution, also called on Assad’s backers in Iran and the Lebanese Shi‘ite militant group Hezbollah to withdraw their support.
“We demand that Iran withdraws all of its experts from Syria and we demand the leadership of Hezbollah to withdraw all of its fighters if found in Syria, because their blood must not be spilt defending a callous and antiquated regime,” he said.
Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Michael Roddy