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Al Qaeda disavowal of ISIS opens door to other jihadist groups

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Ammar Abdullah/Reuters

(Read caption) Members of Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra carry their weapons as they move towards their positions near Aleppo international airport which is controlled by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad January 28, 2014.

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Al Qaeda’s leadership has publicly broken ties with its one-time Iraqi affiliate, now operating in Syria, a move that has significant implications for the fractured Syrian opposition and highlights the changing influence of Al Qaeda over emerging radical groups.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is “not a branch of Al Qaeda,” and has no “organizational relationship with it and [al-Qaeda] is not the group responsible for their actions,” read a statement issued by the terrorist group’s Pakistan-based command center Monday.

A US official called the split “unprecedented,” according to The Washington Post. It is the first time Al Qaeda central, as the main branch is often called, has publicly disavowed a group. 

ISIS got its start in Iraq during the US occupation as Al Qaeda in Iraq, renamed itself the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006, and expanded to Syria, becoming the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, last year. It has been called on repeatedly by Al Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri to withdraw from Syria, where it has clashed with another jihadist group, Jabhat al-Nusra, reports Agence France-Presse.

ISIS claimed to have merged with Jabhat al-Nusra, but Mr. Zawahiri and Jabhat al-Nusra both rejected the statement. The latter has since been deemed Al Qaeda's official affiliate in Syria, and stands to benefit from the latest twist, Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at Brookings Doha Center, writes.

Nonetheless, this represents a strong and forthright move by [Al Qaeda central] and will undoubtedly serve to further consolidate Jabhat al-Nusra’s role as Al Qaeda’s official presence in Syria. Noticeably, Jabhat al-Nusra units in several areas of Syria have, for several months now, been referring to themselves as Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Sham, and thus effectively identifying themselves as “Al Qaeda in Syria.” Jabhat al-Nusra has played a remarkably smart strategy in Syria, with pragmatism proving to have been critical in determining the group’s continued success. Considering its solid al-Qaida links, it is incredibly ironic that Jabhat al-Nusra has effectively been accepted as an almost mainstream actor in many areas of the country.

ISIS is accused of targeting Syrian civilians as well as other rebel groups in Syria in a bid to impose its strict interpretation of Islam on Syrians. After months of witnessing its extreme tactics, several of the Syrian rebel groups rose up against ISIS in the early days of 2014, leading to intense infighting. In some parts of the country, the primary battle is now between ISIS and other extreme rebel groups, not the rebels and the Syrian regime.

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The Christian Science Monitor describes the divide:

ISIS’s brutal treatment of civilians in areas under its control and kidnappings and assassinations of commanders and fighters of other rebel groups tested the patience of the opposition. The bulk of ISIS is composed of non-Syrians who appeared more intent on consolidating control of territory and imposing strict Islamic law than in fighting the Assad regime.

Rebel groups accuse ISIS of intransigence, among other things, comparing it unfavorably to Jabhat al-Nusra, another Al Qaeda affiliate but one that is more flexible in dealing with rebel factions and is more Syria-centric. The Syrian political opposition has repeatedly accused ISIS of acting in collusion with the Assad regime. Haitham al-Maleh, a leading Syrian democracy activist, described ISIS early this month as “a mine planted by the Assad regime in the revolution's body to warn the international community of approaching or interfering in Syrian issues.”

Certainly, the Assad regime regularly points to ISIS as an example of the enemy it faces in an attempt to dissuade the West from supporting the armed Syrian opposition.

"So long as it continues, these inter-group hostilities make any kind of provincial, let alone national, opposition victory in Syria highly unlikely,” Mr. Lister wrote.

Syrian rebel groups battling ISIS have been distracted from their fight against Mr. Assad’s regime, but once they refocus on the Syrian leader, they could be a much stronger foe, according to The Christian Science Monitor. 

Mr. Assad may rejoice at the sight of his enemies fighting each other, evidence perhaps of further disarray within the opposition. But the campaign against ISIS (also sometimes known as ISIL) appears to demonstrate improved coordination and unity among leading rebel groups, which could make them a more formidable fighting force when their full attention shifts back to the regime. The Assad regime could then face an Islamist-dominated, battle-hardened, coordinated, and unified rebel opposition better able to confront the Syrian Army and its allies than at present.

The New York Times reports that Al Qaeda’s break with ISIS will “probably spark competition for resources and fighters between the two sides in what has become a civil war within a civil war. The test for Zawahri’s influence will be whether his decision leads fighters to quit the Islamic State.”

Some analysts see Zawahiri’s move in severing ties with ISIS as a way to measure his control over other Al Qaeda affiliates worldwide. McClatchy reports that, “if ISIS survives the expulsion and continues to hold onto its positions inside Syria, it likely will mean that central al Qaida’s ability to command their operations will have collapsed.”

The Christian Science Monitor’s Dan Murphy writes that Al Qaeda has “long struggled with controlling its Iraqi offshoot,” and Zawahiri’s announcement this week may not do much to change that:

It turns out that local armies fighting local wars are more interested in their parochial concerns than Zawahiri's quixotic hope for a global jihad to remake the world order and that their commanders aren't particularly interested in taking their orders from a group based thousands of miles away.Zawahiri has been trying to assert control over ISIS for over a year, with little success....

Zawahiri has never been able to bring the Iraqi fighters under his thumb. One of the earliest leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq was the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (later killed in a US airstrike) and their tentative alliance came apart in 2005. In a letter to Zarqawi in 2005, Zawahiri's frustration was palpable.

"If we look at the two short-term goals, which are removing the Americans and establishing an Islamic emirate in Iraq, or a caliphate if possible, then we will see that the strongest weapon which the mujahedeen enjoy – after the help and granting of success by God – is popular support from the Muslim masses in Iraq, and the surrounding Muslim countries," he wrote then, warning of the "scenes of slaughter" of captives and civilians that the Iraqi group was daily carrying out. Zawahiri told Zarqawi that he was alienating the Iraqi people and undermining his cause.

Zarqawi and his followers ignored Zawahiri, increased the tempo of sectarian attacks targeting Shiite civilians, and created the conditions that saw many Sunni Iraqi tribes turn on them violently in 2007.

That history appears to be repeating itself in Syria - though with the added wrinkle of other jihadi groups like [Jabhat al-Nusra] that may maintain longer term links with the Al Qaeda led by Zawahiri.

Lister writes that patience with ISIS seems to be running out from all corners, with ISIS fighters being openly encouraged to defect.

Also last night, prominent Saudi Salafi cleric Dr. Abdullah bin Mohammed al-Moheisini issued a statement regarding his so-called Umma Initiative – a peace plan aimed at healing hostile divisions between ISIL and other armed groups in Syria. The plan has received statements of support from every strategically notable group in Syria, except ISIL, who issued qualifications for their involvement that effectively rendered the plan null and void. Moheisini’s statement last night essentially represented a direct appeal to ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to re-assess his group’s opposition to the Umma Initiative. 


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