BEIRUT: The mainstream Syrian rebel command distanced itself from the jihadist Nusra Front Tuesday after Al-Qaeda in neighboring Iraq confirmed that it spawned and supervised the group.
The Free Syrian Army insisted that alliances it had struck with Nusra fighters on the ground were only tactical, local and time-limited, as Al-Qaeda openly admitted the Iraq links of one of the spearheads of the armed uprising against the Damascus regime.
“We don’t support the ideology of Nusra,” FSA spokesman Louay Mokdad told The Daily Star
“There has never been and there will never be a decision at the command level to coordinate with Nusra. The situation on the ground is what has imposed this,” he said in a separate interview with AFP, adding that coordination with Nusra was “tactical and time-limited. ... The Nusra Front is not attached to the FSA.”
The FSA’s statement came in response to a statement from the head of Al-Qaeda’s front group in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Tuesday that the Nusra Front was its creation and that its leader Abu Mohammad al-Jawlani was “one of our soldiers.”
“It is time to declare to the Levant and to the world that the Nusra Front is simply a branch of the Islamic State of Iraq,” Baghdadi said in an audio message posted on jihadist forums.
He said the groups would merge under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, adding that the Iraqi group was providing half of its budget to the conflict in Syria.
Baghdadi said the Syrian group would have no separate leader but instead be led by the “people of Syria themselves” – implying that he would be in charge in both countries.
This latest announcement is likely to further stoke fears among backers of the opposition, including both Western countries and Gulf Arab states, and cast further doubt on discussions on how and who to arm among the Syrian opposition forces.
The Nusra Front has been playing an increasingly strategic fighting role in the battle against Assad forces. They have played a leading role in overrunning strategic military bases and most recently, the capture last month of the first provincial capital in Raqqa in the central north, which is now being administered under a form of Islamic law. But some Syrian rebel commanders have acknowledged discomfort at Nusra’s jihadist ideology, its resorting to suicide bombings against civilians and its use of foreign recruits.
The U.S. in December blacklisted the Nusra Front as a terrorist group, and the administration of President Barack Obama and others had long been claiming that Al-Qaeda in Iraq was supplying the Nusra Front with funds, arms and fighters.
Experts believe the foreign contingent represents a small minority of the total number of rebels. But the government of President Bashar Assad has frequently blamed foreign insurgents for stoking and leading the 2-year-old civil war.
A top Iraqi intelligence official told the Associated Press in Baghdad that they had always known that “Al-Qaeda in Iraq is directing the Nusra Front.”
He said they announced their unity because of “political, logistical and geographical circumstance.” The official said Iraqi authorities would take “strict security measures to strike them.”
Iraqi officials say the jihadist groups are sharing three military training compounds, logistics, intelligence and weapons as they grow in strength around the Syria-Iraq border, particularly in a sprawling Al-Jazeera region, which they are trying to turn into a border sanctuary they can both exploit.
The Al-Qaeda statement has added urgency to the announcement of talks to address the chaos and divisions of the opposition movement, variously allied with different states and at odds over a political or military agenda.
Several G-8 foreign ministers will meet senior Syrian opposition members this week in London on the sidelines of a ministerial meeting, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Tuesday.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed that he would be among those meeting the rebel representatives in the British capital.
Hague said he had already met Syrian rebel Prime Minister Ghassan Hitto and two senior members of the Syrian National Coalition Tuesday and discussed with them the issue of arming the opposition.
“In the two days before the G-8 meeting, today and tomorrow, I have invited Syrian opposition leaders, leaders of the National Coalition to London. I met them this morning,” Hague told a briefing of foreign journalists in London.
The other rebel leaders he had met with were SNC vice presidents George Sabra and Suheir Atassi, Hague said.
It was not clear whether former coalition leader Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib would attend.
He did not specify which ministers would meet with the SNC leaders, with Russia being highly unlikely to do so given its support for Assad.
Hague said Britain and France would continue to push for the lifting of an EU arms embargo to Syria so they can arm the rebels.
“We certainly believe it is necessary if the situation continues to deteriorate to increase the practical help we give to the Syrian opposition,” he said.
The coalition has announced they will try to form a transition government headed by Hitto to coordinate humanitarian aid, weapons and manage resources in the northern mostly rebel-held issue, but divisions over the leadership have hindered decision-making.
The Nusra Front has said it is seeking an Islamic state in Syria after Assad’s overthrow, but the FSA’s Mokdad insisted: “No one has the right to impose on Syrians what shape their state will take.
“Syrians will go to the polls to choose their leaders,” he said.
In fighting Tuesday, mortar strikes killed at least one person in western Damascus near the headquarters of the Syrian government, Syrian state media reported.
“A citizen was martyred and two others were injured by mortar shells fired by terrorists this afternoon on the Kfar Souseh residential area,” the official SANA news agency reported, a day after a suicide car bombing in the capital killed 12 people.
The opposition-aligned Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that mortar shells “fell in the area around the council of ministers.”
Damascus has come under increasing mortar strikes from rebels arrayed in suburbs on the outskirts of the capital, from where they are able to target central neighborhoods still under regime control.
Meanwhile, in the northern city of Aleppo, the Observatory reported violent clashes between regime troops and opposition fighters near the Al-Kindi hospital that left around 10 rebels and five soldiers dead.
At least 39 people were killed in violence throughout the country Tuesday, according to an early toll from the Observatory.