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An international conference in Morocco this week will focus on the future of Syria's opposition. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was due to attend but she is ill, so her deputy, William Burns, will be going in her place. Among the items that will be discussed is a notable move by the State Department. It's adding a Syrian rebel group to a terrorism list today. This is part of an effort by the United States to marginalize extremists and boost the secular opposition in Syria. But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, this is a tricky task that could come too late.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The State Department is worried that extremists are making more inroads in Syria as the fighting drags on. That's why spokesperson Victoria Nuland says Jabhat al-Nusra is being labeled a foreign terrorist organization, a designation that comes with sanctions.
VICTORIA NULAND: Al-Nusra is little more than a front for al-Qaida in Iraq, who has moved some of its operations into Syria. You know, this, again, goes to the environment that Assad and his regime have created with their violence, that they have, as we've been concerned about for many months, created an environment with this violence that extremists can now try to exploit.
KELEMEN: But while the U.S. puts the blame squarely on Bashar al-Assad's regime, the decision to label a group of Syrian rebels terrorists could play into Assad's hands. That's one possibility raised by Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian exile who teaches at the National Defense University.
MURHAF JOUEJATI: The Assad regime is going to immediately jump, say, well, we have been saying this all along. These are terrorist gangs that are sowing all sorts of violence in Syria.
KELEMEN: On the other hand, Zuishati says the move might do what the U.S. wants - help the more moderate opposition in Syria.
JOUEJATI: The secular elements of the Free Syrian Army I think would appreciate this because there is an increasing rivalry between them and those Islamist elements in the Syrian opposition.
KELEMEN: Getting rebels to keep their distance from al-Nusra could be a challenge, says Joseph Holliday, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. He says al-Nusra is one of the most active and effective rebel groups on the ground in Syria today.
JOSEPH HOLLIDAY: One of the things that is difficult about them is the fact that they not only do conduct the large-scale types of terrorist attacks against - in both the regime and against, you know, civilians in Damascus and Aleppo, they've done this, but they also conduct a lot of, you know, more conventional infantry-type operations.
KELEMEN: And he doesn't think the terrorist designation will be enough to marginalize them. Holliday says the U.S. just doesn't have that kind of leverage with Syrian rebels.
HOLLIDAY: And so it's going to be key for the U.S. to follow this with greater support for the opposition in order to build that leverage.
KELEMEN: That doesn't necessarily mean military aid, he says. He's hopeful that the State Department official attending this week's conference in Morocco will offer diplomatic recognition to the newly created Syrian Opposition Coalition. Holliday says the idea then would be to funnel all aid, whether non-lethal or military, through that coalition and get all countries on the same page.
HOLLIDAY: We really have a chance here for, you know, a really coherent U.S. policy on Syria, something that we've been struggling to build for too long, I think.
KELEMEN: He says the Obama administration made it more difficult for itself by waiting so long to offer meaningful support to the Syrian opposition. Its goal now is to try to isolate extremists and prop up those in the opposition it would prefer to see in power in Syria after Assad. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.