BEIRUT: Rebel groups across Syria are defying the United States by pledging their allegiance to a group that Washington will designate on Tuesday a terrorist organisation for its alleged links to al-Qaeda.
A total of 29 opposition groups, including fighting "brigades" and civilian committees, have signed a petition calling for mass demonstrations in support of Jabhat al-Nusra, an Islamist group which the White House believes is an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The petition is promoting the slogan "No to American intervention, for we are all Jabhat al-Nusra" and urges supporters to "raise the Jabhat al-Nusra flag" as a "thank you".
"These are the men for the people of Syria, these are the heroes who belong to us in religion, in blood and in revolution," read a statement widely circulated on Syrian opposition Facebook pages.
Jabhat al-Nusra made its mark early this year with a string of suicide bombings, a tactic it continues to use. Aided by fighters from abroad and Syrians who have returned from other wars in the Middle East, it has also led battles for a number of military bases and has secured a string of recent victories. Along with allied jihadist groups, it captured the Sheikh Suleiman base west of Aleppo on Monday, and has also dented the infrastructure of the regime in the Syrian capital, Damascus.
Although Jabhat al-Nusra remains separate from the Free Syrian Army, many FSA leaders now recognise its strength and order their forces to co-operate with it.
The decision to blacklist the group, which according to the Washington Post will be announced on Tuesday, raises the prospect of a drawn-out, anti-American insurgency if and when the rebels succeed in forcing out President Bashar al-Assad.
The designation prohibits Americans from having any financial dealings with the group and freezes its assets in the US. Washington is taking the step as part of a new strategy to impose "shape" on the opposition it hopes will replace Mr Assad.
Even mainstream opposition activists expressed anger at what they claimed was America's last-minute attempt to "muscle in on their revolution".
"It is terrible timing on the part of the United States," said Mulham Jundi, who works with the opposition charity Watan Syria. "By calling Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists, the US is legitimising the Syrian regime's bombardment of cities like Aleppo. Now the government can say it is attacking terrorists."
The rise of Jabhat al-Nusra represents the Americans' worst fear – they refused to arm the rebels earlier in the conflict to avoid weapons falling into the hands of jihadists, only to find that in their absence, jihadi groups well-funded by supporters in the Gulf have risen to prominence.
The West attempted to rectify this at the weekend by backing the formation of a new FSA command structure at a meeting in Turkey. Its new leadership, which sidelines former commanders such as General Mustafa al-Sheikh and Colonel Riad al-Assad, includes senior figures without a regime background. Many are linked to the Muslim Brotherhood or even more radical Salafi movements, but are thought to be men with whom the West "can do business".
The US is legitimising the Syrian regime's bombardment of cities like Aleppo. Now the government can say it is attacking terrorists.Mulham Jundi, opposition charity worker
The command is seen as a prospective military wing of the new Syrian National Coalition, formed last month also under Western auspices in Qatar.
EU leaders including William Hague, Britain's Foreign Secretary, met the heads of the coalition in Brussels on Monday, having already recognised it as "the legitimate representative of the aspirations of the Syrian people".
Opposition fighters inside Syria told The Daily Telegraph that the US announcement was too little too late, and that any attempts by the West to intervene in Syria would be rejected. "We don't support the new FSA military command," said Ous al-Arabi, a spokesman of the Deir al-Zour Revolutionary council.
"For Deir al-Zour province they have chosen people who are not representative. Jabhat al-Nusra is the strongest group here and they ignored that. The people are not going to accept intervention by the West now. You were watching us die, and now that we are close to victory you want to intervene? You are not welcome."