BEIRUT: The leader of Al-Qaeda has ordered the reorganization of jihadist efforts in Syria and Iraq by abolishing the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and giving the Nusra Front sole responsibility for activities in war-torn Syria.
In an audio tape relayed via Al-Jazeera television Friday, Ayman Zawahri lays out 14 points to resolve the rivalry between the two Al-Qaeda-inspired groups.
The announcement came as forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad fought rebels, including from ISIS, in the north and center of the country.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops, backed by Hezbollah fighters, recaptured parts of Base 80 in the north.
The Nusra Front first emerged in early 2012 and is now believed to be led by Abu Mohammad Golani.
In April of this year, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, announced the formation of ISIS and said that the Nusra Front had merged with his group. Golani denied the news the following day, while maintaining that his group remained loyal to Al-Qaeda.
Some reports maintain that the Zawahri’s orders date from May, which if true, would signal that ISIS has not obeyed the instructions.
In the video, Zawahri blamed both Golani and Baghdadi for acting without the knowledge of the central Al-Qaeda leadership.
“Abu Bakr Baghdadi erred by announcing the formation of ISIS without consulting or informing us ... Golani erred by rejecting ISIS ... without consulting or informing us,” Zawahri says in the first two points.
In the next four points, Zawahri orders the abolishment of ISIS and says it should continue as the earlier Islamic State of Iraq, while the Nusra Front should continue as an “independent branch” of Al-Qaeda. Zawahri then specifies the “wilaya makaniyya,” or area of political activity, for each group: The Islamic State of Iraq should confine itself to Iraq, with the Nusra Front given sole authority for Syria.
In points seven and eight, Zawahri announces that both leaders, Baghdadi and Golani, are appointed to head their respective groups as “emirs” for a period of one year.
After that, the Shura council of each jihadist organization will file a report on their performances with the central Al-Qaeda leadership, which will decide whether to retain them or transfer them elsewhere.
In points nine and 10, Zawahri instructs each group to support the other “with men, weapons and money” and in the final four points, the Al-Qaeda leader makes a series of pleas for attacks against jihadists and Muslims at large without sufficient legal evidence.
During the reshuffle, Zawahri adds, “Muslims should not be persecuted for switching allegiance, even if they are mistaken” in doing so.
Both jihadist groups have undertaken attacks against Syrian regime forces and at times cooperated with each other and with other Islamist and mainstream Free Syrian Army rebel groups. But they have also engaged in infighting and actions against civilians that have raised the ire of the mainstream opposition.
These have included kidnappings and public executions in areas under its control.
On the ground, tensions remained high and rebels were reportedly beefing up their ranks after new clashes with loyalist troops.
The Observatory said at least 15 troops and 30 rebels, including 11 jihadists, were killed in the fighting over Base 80 near the Aleppo’s airport Friday.
“Regime troops have advanced inside the base and now control large parts of it, and rebel groups and the Islamic State are bringing in reinforcements,” the activist group said.
A senior security official confirmed the army was making advances in the area near the town of Safira.
Meanwhile, on the diplomatic front the United States sought Friday to persuade the opposition to agree to attend international peace talks in Geneva, a day before Assad’s opponents gather to decide on the issue, opposition sources said.
U.S. envoy Robert Ford met the senior leadership of the Syrian National Coalition in Istanbul to push them to approve the talks, which aim to end Syria’s 31-month-old civil war by creating a transitional governing body, coalition members said.
But there were strong reservations in the coalition against giving blanket commitments, the opposition members said, and tension between Saudi Arabia and the U.S., the main backers of the coalition, was adding to the uncertainty.
Riyadh has expressed disappointment with U.S. policy toward Syria in the wake of a deal between Moscow and Washington to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal that averted the threat of a Western military strike.
The 108 member coalition, which has little influence on the most formidable brigades fighting Assad including Nusra and ISIS, is due to meet Saturday in Istanbul, with Geneva as the main item for discussions.
The meeting, expected to last at least two days, will also vote on admitting 11 new Kurdish members who are seen in favor of Geneva.
“The coalition will likely give only tacit approval to go. We feel we are being used as a scapegoat while the big powers themselves are in disagreement. How are we expected to go to talks for which we do not know the agenda?” one coalition source said.
“[Ambassador] Ford is trying hard. But things are in flux. Saudi Arabia is angry and no one really knows in which direction the coalition will go,” another source said.
U.S. officials were not immediately available for comment on Friday’s reported meeting, which was not formally announced.