BEIRUT — After nearly three weeks of intra-rebel fighting that’s killed at least 1,400 people, the head of al Qaida weighed in Thursday, urging the groups to abandon their internal rivalries and focus instead on overthrowing President Bashar Assad.
Al Qaida chief Ayman al Zawahiri made the plea in an audio statement that was aimed at calming fighting between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an al Qaida affiliate, and other rebel groups aimed at pushing ISIS out of areas it had controlled in northern and eastern Syria. ISIS’ brutal tactics, including beheadings, as it sought to form an Islamist state in areas it controlled had earned it the enmity of other rebel groups, including the Nusra Front, itself an al Qaida affiliate.
Zawahiri’s message was directed to both Islamist fighters and, unusually, to rebels who don’t accept his group’s ideology.
“Our hearts and the hearts of the (Muslim) nation, which hangs its hopes on you, have bled for the infighting that has spread between the ranks of those waging jihad for Islam,” Zawahiri said in the five-minute recording.
“We call on all our brothers in all the jihadist groups. . . to work towards ending this sedition, which will lead to only God knows what,” he said. “Every mujahedeen group and every free person in Syria seeking to overthrow al Assad . . . seek an end to fighting between brothers in jihad and Islam immediately.”
It’s doubtful that Zawahiri’s plea will be heeded. ISIS already has ignored his instruction, issued last year, to confine its activities to Iraq, which came in April when ISIS attempted to take over the Nusra Front. Zawahiri ruled in June that the Syrian-led Nusra Front should represent the al Qaida movement in Syria.
ISIS continued to expand its reach into Syria even after Zawahiri’s admonition was posted again in November.
Unlike most other rebel groups, Nusra has been reluctant to confront ISIS directly during the most recent fighting, though its fighters have clashed with ISIS occasionally. ISIS has lost ground in Idlib and Latakia provinces but has consolidated its control of the provincial capital of Raqqa, leaving rebel-held areas crisscrossed with competing zones of control.
On Sunday the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, issued a statement of his own calling for the fighting to end and apparently ordering his men to halt retaliatory attacks on other rebels, which have included more than a dozen suicide car bombings.
“We have not been able to prevent this battle and were forced to fight,” he said in an unverified audiotape distributed on jihadist websites. “If someone stops firing at you, stop firing at them. Fight together against one enemy we all have.”
That Zawahiri didn’t directly make rulings on who was in the wrong or specifically order groups to take a course of action led some experts to conclude that al Qaida Central, as many refer to the original group founded by Osama bin Laden, has lost influence over its local affiliates’ operations.
“Super-weak statement from Zawahiri on Syria,” J.M. Berger, who writes extensively on al Qaida, said on his Twitter feed. “Says he’ll support whomever jihadis choose to lead. Essentially concedes he has no control.”
That assessment was shared by Charles Lister, a terrorism adviser at the Brookings Center in Doha, Qatar. He said that since ISIS emerged last spring, Zawahiri’s ability to influence the actions of ISIS and the Nusra Front “has been remarkably minimal.”
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero