The United States yesterday designated the Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat Al Nusra, a key element in the opposition struggle, as a foreign terrorist organisation and said it was trying to hijack the rebellion on behalf of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
US officials said that the Al Nusra group had claimed responsibility for carrying out about 600 attacks in major cities that have killed numerous innocent Syrians.
"Through these attacks, Al Nusra has sought to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition while it is, in fact, an attempt by AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes," a US state department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said.
Designating it as a terrorist group means US authorities can freeze any assets the group or its members have in US jurisdictions. It also prohibits Americans from giving it any material support.
Yesterday's action came as US officials attend the Friends of Syria meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco, to discuss the 20-month-old crisis in Syria as rebels push forward on the battlefield and move to unify the political opposition.
The rebels, backed by Jabhat Al Nusra, took control of a sprawling military compound yesterday after a two-day battle that killed at least 35 government troops, an activist group said. It was the second major base captured in the country's north by the rebels, who have been racking up victories in the area in recent weeks and making inroads further south towards Damascus, the seat of the government they are fighting to overthrow.
The battle for the sprawling Sheik Suleiman military base, near the northern city of Aleppo, ended when the rebels took over the site's main compound and warehouses that housed a military research centre, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. They had first breached the base perimeter on Sunday, after weeks of fighting with soldiers loyal to president Bashar Al Assad.
Also yesterday in Aleppo - the country's largest city and commercial centre - four mortar rounds hit the predominantly Kurdish neighbourhood of Sheik Maksoud, killing 11, including three children and two women, and wounding a dozen other people, the Observatory said.
It also reported clashes and shelling in several Damascus suburbs, including Aqraba, near the international airport where fighting started early this month.
The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said that five people were killed during clashes between troops and rebels in the Damascus suburb of Rankous.
Al Nusra, one of the most efficient fighting groups in Syria, is not part of a new, Islamist-dominated military command elected in Turkey at the weekend.
Its actions have included more than 40 suicide attacks as well as the use of small arms and improvised explosive device operations and have targeted major city centers, including Damascus, Aleppo, Hamah and Dara, US officials said.
Meanwhile, more than 500,000 Syrians have registered as refugees in neighboring countries, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said yesterday.
"Syrian refugees arriving during recent bad weather reached Jordan with soaked clothing and mud-covered shoes due to heavy rainfall," Melissa Fleming, UNHCR chief spokeswoman, said yesterday.
"UNHCR protection teams described the night-time arrivals as fearful, freezing and without proper winter clothing."
More than 41,000 people have been killed in the conflict, according to the Observatory.
At least 46 people were killed across Syria yesterday, including 15 in Damascus and its suburbs, where clashes were reported between rebel forces closing in on the city and Mr Al Assad's troops, the Local Coordination Committees said.
About 400 anti-regime Syrians and their French supporters traveled to Strasbourg yesterday aboard the "Freedom Train for the Syrian People" to spread their message of support for the new opposition coalition and plead for help in the European Parliament.
Monzer Makhous, the newly-appointed ambassador to France of the opposition coalition working with the Free Syrian Army to push out Mr Al Assad, said before boarding the train that it is important for Europeans to "better understand the challenges of the Syrian people".
* Reuters and Bloomberg