Al Qaeda leadership breaks with Syria group
Terror group’s leader moves to reassert control over fragmented fighters in civil war
CAIRO — Al Qaeda’s central leadership broke with one of its most powerful branch commanders yesterday, saying it had no links with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), in an apparent attempt to reassert its authority over fragmented fighter groups in Syria’s civil war.
More broadly, the announcement appeared to be a move by al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahri to reassert the terror network’s prominence in the Jihad movement across the Middle East amid the mushrooming of extremist groups during the upheaval of the past three years.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, formed the ISIL last spring to expand his operations into neighbouring Syria, defying direct orders by al-Zawahri not to do so. Al-Zawahri named a different group, the Nusra Front, as al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria.
Now, the break is likely to spark a competition for resources and fighters between the two sides in what has become a civil war within a civil war. The test for al-Zawahri’s influence will be whether his decision leads fighters to quit the ISIL.
In Washington, which has viewed the increasing influence of Islamic extremism in Syria’s rebel movement with unease, State Department spokesman Jen Psaki said that both the ISIL and the Nusra Front are considered terrorist organizations. As for al Qaeida’s attempt to distance itself from the ISIL, she said: “There’s no way for me to evaluate what it will mean in the months ahead.”
In a conflict that has seen atrocities by all sides, the ISIL has been particularly vicious. It is believed to be dominated by thousands of non-Syrian Jihadi fighters, and is seen by others in the rebellion as more concerned with venting sectarian hatreds and creating a transnational Islamic caliphate than with toppling Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Since its creation, it has taken over swathes of territory in Syria, often imposing Sharia law.
Its fighters have beheaded captured government fighters, carried out some of the deadliest massacres against pro-al-Assad minorities and kidnapped anti-al-Assad activists, journalists and civilians seen as critical of its rule.
It has increasingly clashed with other factions, particularly an umbrella group of Syrian rebels called the Islamic Front, which accuses it of trying to hijack the campaign to oust al-Assad. Even the group’s name, Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, was seen as a declaration that the group was the only real Islamic movement in the country.
Those frictions erupted into outright warfare in January. Since January 3, more than 1,700 people have been killed in fighting between rival factions, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
At the same time, al-Baghdadi has brought his group back to the forefront in his homeland Iraq. The past month, his fighters rose up and virtually took over main cities in Iraq’s western Anbar province.
That has made al-Baghdadi a powerful, growing force in the Jihadi movement.
With yesterday’s statement, al Qaeda appeared to be intent on undercutting al-Baghdadi’s allure by making clear he was not supported by the central leadership.
Al Qaeda’s general command announced it has “no connection” with the ISIL, underlined that the group “is not a branch of the al Qaeda organization,” and said al Qaeda “is not responsible for its actions.”
The central command did not condone the group’s creation, it added, “and in fact ordered it to stop,” the statement said. As for the infighting in Syria, al Qaeda said: “We distance ourselves from the sedition taking place among the mujahedeen factions.”
Charles Lister of the Brookings Doha Centre said the al Qaeda statement reflected its “attempt to definitively re-assert some level of authority over the Jihad in Syria.”
The Syrian government extended its intense aerial campaign against rebel-held areas of the northern city of Aleppo yesterday, conducting a series of airstrikes that killed at least 18 people, including five children, activists said.
The nation’s Air Force has pounded opposition areas of the divided city since mid-December, reducing apartment blocks to rubble and overwhelming already strapped hospitals and medical clinics with the wounded. On Sunday, government aircraft also targeted areas of east Aleppo under rebel control, killing nearly 40 people.
Russia also stepped up its defence of the Damascus government yesterday in a dispute with the West over delays in the elimination of Syria’s chemical arsenal, saying that al-Assad’s government was not to blame and that a June deadline could still be met.
In an interview with Reuters, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said there was no need to put “political pressure” on Damascus because the delays were the result of a difficult security situation and logistical issues.
The operation to dispose of Syria’s stockpile, agreed by Russia and the US, is up to two months behind schedule, it was reported last week.
Herald with AP, Reuters