BEIRUT — Al Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri on Friday ordered the terrorist group’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, to halt offensive operations against a rival jihadist group and concentrate on the war against the Syrian government.
In a taped message posted to a jihadist website, Zawahiri told Nusra’s commander, Abu Mohammed al Jolani, that “all soldiers of the front (should) immediately cease fighting” the al Qaida offshoot Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Citing concern that the fight against both the regime and ISIS was spreading Nusra’s forces too thin and distracting the attention of the Muslim community at a time when the rebellion was losing ground to the government, Zawahiri ordered Jolani to “devote himself to combat the enemies of Islam, specifically Baathists, Shiites and their allies” _ a reference to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s Baath political party and the Alawite strain of Shiite Islam, of which Assad is a practitioner.
ISIS, Nusra and other rebel groups have been locked in a fierce internecine struggle since January, when other rebel groups rebelled against ISIS’s seizure of areas in northern and eastern Syria toward the end of last year and its imposition of its radical brand of Islamist rule. During that time, ISIS has remained in control of much of eastern Syria, but it’s been pushed from areas along the border with Turkey. Analysts recently suggested that ISIS controls about 20 percent of Syrian territory and the provincial capital of Raqqa, the only major urban center not in government hands.
On Friday, a cease-fire was announced to allow the last few hundred fighters barricaded inside the old city district of Homs, which fell to the rebels more than two years ago, to escape into the countryside and end the months-long siege and blockade, which had turned the district into a ghost town. It was a symbolic defeat for the rebels: Homs was the first major city to revolt against Assad and had long been considered the capital of the revolution.
What role, if any, rebel setbacks may have played in Zawahiri’s pronouncement was uncertain. Nusra has been at the forefront of most major rebel victories during the past 18 months, and Zawahiri’s announcement may be a recognition that the battle against ISIS was a major distraction of manpower and strategic thinking from the war against Assad. Additionally, the rift made little sense since both groups share the same ideology.
“Ultimately (Zawahiri) recognizes that deep down the jihadis share the same ideological program so they should not fight each other, even if he condemns ISIS for extremism,” said Aymen al Tamimi, an analyst of jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq for the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum.
Abu Omar al Homsi, a Nusra commander currently in Lebanon, said that even with Zawahiri’s urging it was unlikely that Nusra and ISIS would reconcile fully because of the blood that had already been shed and because ISIS by nature had taken an uncompromising position on its role in Syria.
“They will attack us still, and we will have to prepare for that,” he said. “But we will not be going on the offensive.”
Tamimi agreed. “The infighting has only led to an overall stalemate and a huge waste of manpower and resources on all sides,” he said. “But I don’t think the infighting will stop. ISIS doesn’t see itself as subordinate to anyone.”
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.