BEIRUT: The leader of Al-Qaeda has urged jihadists and rebels in Syria to end the bloody confrontation that has claimed an estimated 1,500 lives this month.
In an audio recording that circulated on Islamist websites Thursday, Ayman al-Zawahri said the fighters’ membership in an array of competing armed groups should not get in the way of their commitment to waging “jihad” and establishing Islamic rule in Syria.
The plea, addressed to all “mujahedeen” fighting in Syria, came after several weeks of clashes and violence across several provinces of the north of the country, as militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) have found themselves under attack by a collection of rebel militias.
The campaign was launched as a reaction to months of objectionable acts by ISIS militants in various parts of Syria they controlled – they were widely blamed for kidnapping and killing opposition activists and non-jihadist rebels, mainly from the mainstream Free Syrian Army.
But the Al-Qaeda fighters from ISIS also committed atrocities against members of the Islamic Front, an alliance of several large militias.
“The strife of fighting that has spread among the ranks of mujahedeen has moved us to tears, and has moved the [Islamic] nation to tears, after it became attached to you,” he said.
Zawahri urged an end to the clashes and appeared to side with the critics of ISIS, by condemning the practice of labeling fellow Muslims “infidels” or “apostates.”
While militants from ISIS have routinely used the terms to refer to their secular enemies, they also applied them to members of staunchly Islamist militias.
Zawahri said it was necessary to treat all Muslims and jihadist fighters, whatever organization they belong to, as “brethren.”
Last year, Zawahri instructed ISIS to leave Syria and refocus on its activities in Iraq, ruling that the Nusra Front, another Al-Qaeda-inspired group, should be solely responsible for military actions in Syria.
Thursday’s message could not be independently confirmed but it corresponded to earlier calls by the Al-Qaeda leader.
“The bonds of brotherhood that tie all of us together should be stronger than any [temporary military] organization,” he said.
Zawahri urged the establishment of a single religious judicial body to rule on disputes that emerge between the various militias, echoing earlier calls by the Islamic Front and the Nusra Front to their rivals in ISIS, before the clashes erupted.
He said all of the fighters’ efforts should be directed toward eliminating the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad which he described as both “secular” and “sectarian.”
Zahawri’s call came as the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that nearly 1,400 people had been killed in the ISIS-versus-rebel clashes, which began on Jan. 3.
The Observatory cited a figure of 1,395 documented casualties, but added that 500 unconfirmed cases meant that the actual number was likely to be significantly higher.
It estimated that 760 fighters from various rebel groups had been killed in clashes or shelling, or summarily executed, while giving a figure of 426 casualties in the ranks of ISIS.
Many of the members of ISIS fighting in Syria are non-Syrians.
Around 190 civilians were also killed in the clashes, which have taken place in the provinces of Aleppo, Idlib, Raqqa, Deir al-Zor, Hama and Homs, while a number of non-identified corpses accounted for the remainder of the victims.
The Observatory said that during the three weeks of deadly clashes the international community merely issued statements of condemnation, while claiming that in some cases certain countries had been working, “in one way or another,” to stoke the violence.
Opposition supporters have been split over the rebel campaign against ISIS – many have applauded the move, while a minority believes that the fighting is yet another diversion from the objective of toppling the Assad regime.
On the ground, opposition sources said ISIS took control of the town of Manbij in rural Aleppo after several days of fierce fighting, and two weeks of a stifling blockade. Thursday’s battles resulted in the deaths of at least nine rebels and several members of ISIS, the Observatory said, adding that 12 Kurdish fighters were killed in clashes with ISIS on the outskirts of the town, while the Al-Qaeda militants also conducted house-to-house raids after securing the city.
It said that ISIS militants also shelled the nearby Kurdish town of Ain al-Arab, or Kobani, where some of the rebel wounded were taken. The Observatory said that around 60 rebel fighters were killed or wounded in fighting in Manbij over the last 48 hours, while opposition sources noted that hundreds of residents continued to flee the city.
In the province of Hassakeh, ISIS claimed responsibility for killing Abdel-Hafez Jaryan, the commander of an Islamist rebel group, Tawhid wal-Jihad, at the beginning of the month.
Separately, clashes that pitted regime troops backed by paramilitaries against rebels were reported in Deraa province, the eastern suburbs of Damascus, the cities of Deir al-Zor and Homs, as well as Aleppo and Idlib provinces.
In rural Aleppo, Islamist rebels and fighters from the rebel Free Syrian Army were heavily engaged in clashes for the village of Aziza. The Observatory said the rebels detonated a building housing regime troops, killing at least six soldiers.
In the city of Aleppo, regime airstrikes targeted at least four neighborhoods, killing at least three people, the Observatory said.
Video footage posted on the Internet by opposition activists purported to show the results of the strikes, and the pulling of survivors from the rubble.
The Observatory said that regime helicopters dropped crude “barrel bombs” on the Jabal Turkman region of rural Latakia, although there were no reports of casualties.
The upscale neighborhood of Abu Rummaneh in Damascus was targeted by a mortar bomb attack, but no casualties were reported.