DAMASCUS/BAGHDAD: The Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has reached out to rebel groups in Syria to head off several weeks of bloody clashes, in an audio message posted online Sunday.
The development came as ISIS militants were trying to cling to several remote areas of Aleppo province still under their control, while regime forces pursued an aerial campaign of dropping crude “barrel bombs” in the city and province of Aleppo.
“Today, the [Islamic] state is reaching out to you to stop fighting us, to focus on fighting the Nusairiyya,” the voice in the message, purportedly that of ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, said, using a derogatory term for Alawites, the sectarian community of President Bashar Assad.
The remarks signal a shift for ISIS, which said earlier this month it would “crush” opposition fighters and considered members of the opposition-in-exile National Coalition and the military command of the rebel Free Syrian Army to be “legitimate targets.”
Baghdadi, in the audio message posted on jihadist forums, accused rebel groups of “betrayal.”
“Anyone who fought against us should review his stance,” he said.
“You have stabbed us in the back, as all of our soldiers were on the front line.”
He continued, referring to various parts of Syria: “We used to have an army that implemented a plan to invade Aleppo and advance to the western front, and we used to have forces in Hama and we used to have forces in Idlib.
“But all of this has stopped in one night because of the betrayal.”
He urged his group’s fighters to “not betray anybody,” and recommended they “forgive” other rebels.
“Forgive them, to concentrate on your enemy, who is the enemy of the Sunni people.”
But ISIS has faced a rebel backlash in Syria and has been hit this month by clashes with a coalition of moderate and Islamist rebels, including with the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria.
Baghdadi had sought to merge his group with Nusra, but it rejected the alliance and pledged allegiance directly to Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri.
Since then, the two groups have functioned separately, though Nusra has remained largely neutral in the latest infighting, and the group’s leader has called for an end to the clashes, warning it would benefit the regime.
ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani sounded a defiant tone in his own audio message earlier in January, calling for ISIS forces to “crush them [the rebels] totally and kill the conspiracy at birth.”
In the latest audio message, Baghdadi also issued a warning to Washington, saying, “Beware America ... that the proxy war will not protect you in Syria, and soon you will be forced into direct confrontation.”
“The sons of Islam are getting themselves ready for that day.”
Baghdadi’s announcement followed a weekend of continued clashes between ISIS militants and an array of moderate and Islamist rebel militias.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Sunday that the fighters were keeping up their defense of the town of Manbij, sparking an exodus of families of anti-ISIS rebels, as well as the town’s Kurdish community.
In the Idlib town of Binnish, ISIS militants retreated from their headquarters after coming under rebel attack, while the Al-Qaeda fighters and rebels clashed near the Tishrin Dam on the Euphrates, east of Aleppo.
In the Aleppo province town of Jarablus, 20 rebels surrendered their weapons to Turkish border authorities after they fled following a battle with ISIS militants.
The Observatory also reported that in the rural Damascus town of Ain Fijeh, regime troops engaged in infighting, without providing details. It said a group of soldiers squared off against another group of regime troops, backed by the paramilitary National Defense forces.
In Aleppo, the Observatory said regime helicopters dropped barrel bombs on the neighborhoods of Maysar, Neirab and Jazmati, killing 15, six of whom were children.
It said several villages in Aleppo province were also targeted by barrel bombs dropped by helicopter, leaving an unspecified number of people wounded.
Regime troops were also trying to make gains in the village of Azizeh, southeast of Aleppo, in battles with rebel groups.
Clashes between regime troops and rebels were reported in Zabadani, in rural Damascus province, during which the rebels were able to damage three regime vehicles and kill an army lieutenant, the Observatory said.
The Observatory said that Saturday, 23 people were killed by regime airstrikes in Aleppo province. They included 11 people killed in shelling of the city of Al-Bab, of whom six were militants from ISIS.
A car bomb in the neighborhood of Firdous killed at least four people, while several barrel bombs targeted a remote rural area of Idlib province, leaving an unspecified amount of damage.
The nationwide death toll Saturday was 194 people, with more than half – 108 – fighters from the various camps, according to the Observatory.