Published On: Sun, Feb 9th, 2014

Al Qaeda Disavows Rebel Group Fighting Syrian Regime

Condemns Growing Infighting Amid Opposition Ranks

By ELLEN KNICKMEYER | Wall Street Journal | 3 Feb 2014This undated file image posted on a militant website on Jan. 14 shows fighters from the jihadist rebel group Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham marching in Raqqa

Al Qaeda disavowed the most aggressive jihadist group in Syria, an attempt to exert the terrorist organization’s influence on the battlefield and curb rebel infighting.

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri decried the fighting between rival rebel factions, which has come at the expense of their war against the Damascus regime, as “a catastrophe for jihad in Syria.” He condemned the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), one of the most powerful extremist groups in the country.

“Al Qaeda declares that it has no links to the ISIS group,” Mr. Zawahiri said in a posting on jihadist websites Sunday night. “We weren’t informed about its creation, nor counseled. Nor were we satisfied with it; rather we ordered it to stop. ISIS isn’t a branch of al Qaeda and we have no organizational relationship with it. Nor is al Qaeda responsible for its actions and behavior.”

The disavowal appeared aimed at rallying jihadist rebel groups fighting against ISIS in Syria. A month-old war within the armed opposition has turned the focus of many rebels toward battling ISIS and away from fighting the regime.

Mr. Zawahiri sees ISIS as a renegade band damaging al Qaeda’s brand through car bombings, mass killings, and torture of fellow Muslims. He rebuked the group for fostering discord among fellow Muslims, for attempting to impose a cross-border Muslim state ruled by strict Islamic law, and for oppressing both Muslims and non-Muslims.

In the U.S., a counterterrorism official said that the core group’s decision to publicly break ties to an affiliate was unprecedented and resulted from a long-running dispute between ISIS and the Nusra Front—al Qaeda’s recognized affiliate in Syria.

Mr. Zawahiri’s announcement acknowledged a rupture that, for all intents and purposes, had already taken place, said the official. The al Qaeda brand still matters to militants around the world, the official added, predicting that the Nusra Front was now likely to trumpet its status as the only true al Qaeda franchise in Syria.

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s scorching vision of Islam already is more popular than Mr. Zawahiri’s among young jihadist fighters, said Romain Caillet, a Beirut-based expert on Sunni extremist groups.

But Mr. Zawahiri’s statement strengthens the hand of groups fighting ISIS in the rebel-on-rebel battles, which have killed 2,300 people since flaring into open war in early January, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group that tracks casualties. The rebel infighting helped to make January, with nearly 5,800 dead, the most lethal month yet in the three-year-old conflict, the group said Monday.

The internal discord has also helped the Assad regime make gains on the battlefield and the deepening rifts among rebels, in the short run, could further bolster the president’s forces. However, if the opposition eventually succeeds in expelling ISIS—the faction most feared within Syria and by the West—it could strengthen support for the rebels.

ISIS, with an estimated 10,000 fighters, has been one of the most effective rebel groups in claiming territory in the civil war. Its leader affirms loyalty to al Qaeda but has shrugged off previous commands from Mr. Zawahiri to respect the independence of the Nusra Front.

In opposition-held Syria, some welcomed the further isolation of ISIS with its many foreign fighters from Iraq, Chechnya and beyond. The dominance of anti-Western jihadist groups has cost the armed opposition any prospect of significant military support from the U.S. and other Western countries.

“We were stupid when we accepted those fighters who have their own project,” said Adham, a fighter with the Western-backed rebel Free Syrian Army in Aleppo. “We were forced to fight some now, and we will fight the rest later.”

Mr. Zawahiri’s latest rebuke touched on similar concerns that date back to a 2005 letter he wrote to the al Qaeda in Iraq leader at that time, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, rebuking him for targeting Iraq’s Shiite Muslims and for brutal tactics such as beheadings. Al Qaeda since Mr. Zarqawi has argued that atrocities against Muslim civilians undermine potential support.

The Islamic State of Iraq emerged in 2006 at the height of sectarian conflict in Iraq. It eventually absorbed Mr. Zarqawi’s branch of al Qaeda and is now called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.

The disavowal by al Qaeda central command “may increase the enthusiasm of the anti-ISIS ranks, but we already have what really amounts to a war within a war in northern Syria,” said Noah Bonsey, a Beirut-based Syria analyst for the International Crisis Group.

In Yemen and in Egypt’s Sinai Desert, leaders of significant local armed extremist groups have expressed a preference for ISIS over al Qaeda, said Mr. Caillet.

The Syrian conflict is also deepening sectarian tensions throughout the Middle East between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

In Saudi Arabia, the royal court announced prison terms of at least three years and up to 20 years for any Saudi who fought outside the country. The move was seen as an attempt to stem the flow of Saudis to fight in Syria. In Lebanon, a suicide bomber killed himself and injured several people outside the capital Beirut. The bomber apparently had been heading to the headquarters of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah when his explosives detonated prematurely, authorities said.