On February 2, al-Qaeda’s central leadership (AQC) issued a statement on prominent jihadist forums formally disavowing all connections with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). The symbolic implications of this statement will likely prove very significant, particularly considering that a principal reason given by AQC was ISIS’s disobedience (relating to the formation of ISIL by its expanding from Iraq into Syria in April 2013 and its subsequent self-presentation as a “state”). In many respects, this represents an attempt by AQC to definitively reassert some level of authority over the jihad in Syria. Tensions have existed within the jihadist movement in Syria since April 2013 and until now, AQC has failed to take a genuinely commanding line. However, the outbreak of fighting between ISIS and other Syrian rebel groups on 3 Jan. made it inevitable that Zawahiri and AQC would have to issue a decisive ruling with permanent consequences – and this is it.
For quite some time, individual ISIS fighters have effectively denied or failed to identify themselves as al-Qaeda. Although a small number of pre-identified ISIS members have already publicly announced their defection from ISIS, it is unlikely that this will occur en masse. Nonetheless, this represents a strong and forthright move by AQC 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-Qaeda links, it is incredibly ironic that Jabhat al-Nusra has effectively been accepted as an almost mainstream actor in many areas of the country.
Pressure is also being forced on ISIL from another direction. 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. Perhaps the most notable aspect of the statement was a direct call on ISIL fighters to defect and join other more respectable organizations – Moheisini suggested Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. Put more simply: Moheisini exerts significant influence within the Islamist insurgency in Syria and the nature of his statement last night represented a not so subtle issuing of a “last chance” to ISIL to rescue itself from its own self-imposed predicament.
Looking ahead, it now seems likely that AQC may issue further statements emphasizing its support to Jabhat al-Nusra, thereby further isolating ISIL. Inter-factional fighting in northern and eastern Syria is likely to continue, particularly in border areas and in and around key facilities and HQs of the variously involved groups.
Considering its long-established behavioral norms, it seems unlikely that ISIL will issue anything representing an apology or retraction. ISIL is already days into a deadly and strategically effective campaign of suicide and car bombings targeting its opponents. Such targeted attacks, particularly in northern Syria, have been aimed at weakening opponents’ key strategic strongpoints and command and control structures, with several important Islamic Front commanders already killed.
In the immediate term, all of this is damaging to the Syrian revolution. Any extent of inter-factional fighting simply represents the expenditure of valuable resources on objectives distinct from fighting the Assad government. So long as it continues, these inter-group hostilities make any kind of provincial, let alone national, opposition victory in Syria highly unlikely.