BEIRUT: Syria’s Nusra Front distanced itself from Al-Qaeda in Iraq Wednesday, whilst simultaneously pledging allegiance to the Islamist group’s general leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, a day after the Iraqi branch said the two groups had merged.
Speaking in an audio recording, Nusra Front’s leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani said, "The sons of Al-Nusra Front pledge allegiance to Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri" according to AFP.
However, he added, "we were not consulted" on the Tuesday announcement by the chief of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi that the two groups were now operating under the same banner, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Tuesday’s announcement provoked a concerned reaction from other Syrian opposition members, worried about their efforts to bring down the regime of President Bashar Assad being hindered by an association with the Nusra Front, a group blacklisted by the U.S. government late last year, and long presumed to have close links with Al-Qaeda.
FSA spokesperson Louay Mokdad told The Daily Star Tuesday that, “We don’t support the ideology of Nusra.”
But it seemed Wednesday that the Nusra Front is keen to play down these fears.
"We inform you that neither the Al-Nusra command nor its consultative council, nor its general manager were aware of this announcement. It reached them via the media and if the speech is authentic, we were not consulted," Jawlani said Wednesday.
He added that the group would not be changing its flag or its "behavior."
Wednesday’s developments came as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was due to meet with Syrian rebel representatives in London, alongside other G8 foreign ministers.
The talks, due to begin in the evening and end Thursday, are set to include a call from Britain for more help for the rebels, Reuters reported Wednesday.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, his French colleague Laurent Fabius and Kerry are due to lunch with Syrian opposition figures Wednesday, but Russian Foreign Ministry Sergei Lavrov, an ally to the Syrian regime, will sit out.
In a tweet, Hague said: “About to hold joint meeting with Secretary Kerry and members of Syrian opposition. Focus on creating conditions for a transition.”
The U.K. and France are again expected to push for a lifting of an arms embargo on the Syrian opposition.
On the ground Wednesday, heavy clashes between regime and rebel troops continued in the outskirts of Damascus, including Mliha and and al-Sbeina, according the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The regime shelled the western suburbs of Daraya and Zabadani, and the areas of Deraa, Deir al-Zor, Idlib and Homs.
There were also fierce clashes in Aleppo, the Observatory reported, and in Hama, where the Local Coordination Committees, another activist network, reported that the FSA had gained control of the Tal Othman checkpoint.
As of early afternoon Wednesday, 44 people had been killed across the country, according to the LCC, including two children and two women, and 26 in Damascus and its suburbs. - With agencies