Islamist Leader in Syria Urges End to Rebel Infighting

The leader of an al-Qaeda-linked group urged rebels in Syria to end their infighting, saying their divisions only benefit President Bashar al-Assad.

Al-Nusra Front head Abu Mohamed al-Jolani urged the groups to turn their attention to Assad’s troops on “the front lines,” according to an audio statement posted on YouTube. The Free Syrian Army, the main Western-backed rebel force, has clashed in northern Syria with another al-Qaeda-linked group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

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 Syrian opposition fighters has complicated policy decisions for the U.S. and its Western allies. Their goal of removing Assad is now tangled 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.

Peace Talks

The infighting 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 igniting the conflict.”

ISIL is also fighting the Shiite Muslim-led government of Iraq in western 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.

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