The leader of the Al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda-linked group fighting against the government in Syria, called for an end to clashes between different factions of the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad.
Abu Mohamed al-Jolani urged the rival groups to stop targeting each other, and said Assad’s forces are “regaining strength” amid the internecine fighting, the British Broadcasting Corp.’s Arabic service reported late yesterday. His call came after reports of clashes between the Free Syrian Army, the main Western-backed rebel force, and another al-Qaeda linked group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, in northern Syria.
At least 88 people died in fighting between opposition groups yesterday, bringing the toll from clashes since Jan. 3 to more than 350, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The rifts are the “largest and most serious” between the Western-backed rebels and al-Qaeda-linked forces since the start of the Syrian civil war in March 2011, Austin, Texas-based consulting firm Stratfor said in an e-mailed report.
The emergence of al-Qaeda among the Syrian opposition fighters has complicated policy decisions for the U.S. and its Western allies. Their expressed goal of removing Assad is now balanced by concern that extremists may be among the beneficiaries.
That concern played a part in the U.S. debate over possible military intervention in Syria, which ended with a decision in September by President Barack Obama’s administration to pull back from threatened strikes.
The infighting among rebels comes as world powers seek to convene peace talks this month in Switzerland to resolve the three-year conflict, which the Syrian opposition says must end with Assad’s removal. The Iranian-backed leader has repeatedly used the presence of Islamist groups among the rebels to frame the conflict as a fight between his government and terrorists.
Al-Jolani criticized ISIL, saying it “played a major role” in starting the conflict with other opposition groups, according to the BBC.
ISIL is also fighting the Shiite Muslim-led government of Iraq in Anbar province, where the Islamist fighters have taken control of several towns.
An airstrike by the Iraqi army near Ramadi, the provincial capital, killed 25 fighters at an operations center for the militants, the Associated Press reported yesterday, citing General Mohammed al-Askari, an Iraqi military spokesman.