BEIRUT: The Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) vowed Tuesday to “crush” the rebel groups that have been fighting it across northern and central Syria in a surprise campaign that began late last week.
An audio recording issued by the group also lashed out at the opposition-in-exile National Coalition, saying its members were now “legitimate targets,” according to media reports.
Abu Mohammad al-Adnani called on ISIS fighters in Syria to “crush them [the rebels] totally and kill the conspiracy at birth,” warning opposition fighters that “none of you will remain, and we will make of you an example to all those who think of following the same path.”
The defiant stance came after the leader of another Al-Qaeda-linked group, the Nusra Front, urged an end to the clashes in opposition-held territories, warning it threatened to reverse gains made against Syrian government forces.
The rare recording by Abu Mohammad al-Golani, the head of the Nusra Front, underscored the seriousness of the clashes that have pitted a chaotic mix of rebel brigades against ISIS fighters.
The Nusra Front has sought to play peacemaker between ISIS and its rivals from the mainstream Free Syrian Army and the conservative Islamic Front, an alliance of seven large militias.
More than 300 people have been reported killed since the clashes erupted Friday, with the figure including several dozen people whose bodies were discovered after they had been executed by ISIS militants.
“The foreigners and supporters will pay the price for losing this great jihadist fighting arena,” Golani said in the recording uploaded to a militant website, referring to non-Syrians and Syrians.
“The regime will revive itself after it was close to disappearing. The West and the Shiites will find a place to enter into this battle,” he said.
The clashes began in Aleppo and Idlib provinces and has spread to Hama, Homs, and the province of Raqqa, an ISIS stronghold .
The Nusra Front and its rival ISIS are ideologically similar: Both are extreme Islamist groups, loyal to Al-Qaeda. But the Nusra Front is dominated by Syrian fighters, and sees its first priority as overthrowing President Bashar Assad, while ISIS has focused on building Islamic rule.
Tensions simmered against ISIS for months, for detaining foreign reporters, Syrian activists, rival rebel fighters and others critical of its rule.
“The mistaken policies of ISIS had a big role to play in igniting this conflict,” Golani said, adding that he and other rebels were trying to form a council to halt the fighting.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that 274 people were killed in the fighting between ISIS and rebel groups through Monday – the figure included 99 ISIS militants and 129 fighters from the various rebel groups.
Some of the dead perished in car bomb attacks, as ISIS fighters used the tactic for the first time against rebel groups, rather than regime targets.
A car bomb attack Monday by ISIS militants in the Idlib village of Rankoush killed 20 fighters, the Observatory said.
Meanwhile, at least 34 ISIS fighters – all non-Syrians – have been summarily executed by rebels in the province of Idlib during the offensive, the Observatory said, citing local medical and activists sources.
The most serious fighting Tuesday was in Aleppo and in the extremist group’s chief stronghold of Raqqa, although the Observatory said the fighting spread to the town of Rastan in Homs province, where 15 fighters were killed.
A government airstrike on the Damascus suburb of Douma killed five people, the Observatory said, while aircraft dropped barrel bombs on another suburb of the capital, Babila, but casualty figures were not available.
The infighting also added more uncertainty to the “Geneva II” peace conference, which is to open Jan. 22 in Switzerland to try to resolve the conflict.
The United States accused Iran of helping “brutalize” Syria as Secretary of State John Kerry prepared to talk to Russia about Tehran’s potential role at a the conference.
Kerry will meet in Paris on Jan. 13 with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss whether Iran should take part in Geneva II, the State Department said.
“At this point, Iran has done nothing but helped the regime, help bring foreign fighters in, help the regime’s efforts to brutalize the Syrian people,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.