LONDON -- The jihadist group at the forefront of Syrian rebel gains on Wednesday pledged allegiance to al Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri, underscoring the bind U.S. and Western European governments are in even as they move toward broader military support for moderate elements of the Syrian opposition.
U.S. diplomats accompanying Secretary of State John Kerry for talks in London with Syrian opposition leaders played down the announcement that the Nusra Front had announced loyalty to Zawahiri, who became the top al Qaida leader after the death of Osama bin Laden. But the timing of the development – as moderate Syrian leaders were seeking more help from the West – underscores the risks associated with Western nations’ plans to offer direct military aid to an amorphous rebel movement.
“The whole crisis in Syria being viewed through the lens of radicalism puts the U.S. in a very difficult position, but I don’t think they can just back off,” said Leila Hilal, head of the Middle East Task Force for the New America Foundation research institute in Washington and a close monitor of the Syrian conflict. “As long as the U.S. keeps saying it’s sending only nonlethal assistance, then I think they can weather this, but it does make it more difficult.”
Nusra Front leader Abu Mohamed al Jawlani made his fealty to Zawahiri known Wednesday via an audio recording posted online, according to the Reuters news agency. The message was in response to an announcement Tuesday in which al Qaida’s Iraq branch said it had merged with Nusra into one entity known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Jawlani contradicted the claim, saying, “We were not consulted” about such a merger, and he clarified that Nusra’s allegiance was to the al Qaida core in Pakistan.
“The links were well known, we didn’t really learn anything new,” said a senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic protocol.
The State Department in December designated Nusra as part of the al Qaida in Iraq terrorist group. On Tuesday, France said it would seek talks with fellow European states and at the United Nations on whether they, too, should designate the group as a terrorist organization.
Having the al Qaida brand on a group with such a visible battlefield presence is largely why the United States and other nations are so skittish about intervening militarily on behalf of the Syrian rebels, who lack a central command, have fighters that move from militia to militia, and are increasingly plagued by divisions between jihadist groups like Nusra and the more moderate fighters under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army.
To further complicate matters, the U.S.-supported rebels are locked in a deep rivalry with the political coalition to which they ostensibly report, leaving Western backers with neither a strong counterweight to the extremists nor a unified opposition front with which to negotiate potentially broader military aid.
Meanwhile, Nusra only seems to be gaining ground. Jawlani’s statement coincides with what appears to be a push by Nusra rebels to consolidate their hold on parts of northern and eastern Syria. Northeast of the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border, Nusra has taken over strategic infrastructure – including grain warehouses, oil and gas fields, refineries and a hydroelectric dam – and it clashed last month with a moderate rebel group that controls a border crossing with Turkey north of the city of Raqqa. Nusra also partially controls that city, which is the largest in the country under outright rebel control.
Activists and moderate rebel groups across northern and eastern Syrian have in recent months complained that Nusra fighters have at times responded violently to those who challenge their primacy. Many Syrians predict a power vacuum should the government be deposed, and Nusra appears to be trying to consolidate control before such an event.
“We reassure our brothers in Syria that al Nusra Front’s behavior will remain faithful to the image you have come to know, and that our allegiance will not affect our politics in any way,” Jawlani said in the recording, according to translations carried by news agencies.
Fearing that Nusra is starting to fill the political void left by two years of disarray among the moderate opposition, American and Western European diplomats are turning up the pressure on the Syrian Opposition Coalition to name provincial representatives inside of Syria and to build a central authority that’s poised to act as a temporary government should Assad’s regime collapse.
The process has been plagued by discord and disorganization – obstacles that were discussed again at a lunch here Wednesday with Kerry, British Foreign Secretary William Hague and opposition figures including Ghassan Hitto, a longtime Texas resident who recently became premier of a temporary shadow government. While the Americans pressed for better organization and efficiency, the State Department official said, the Syrians repeated their calls for more military aid.
CNN reported this week that the administration was prepared to add body armor and night-vision goggles to its current pledge of food and medicine for the rebels, but U.S. officials have made no public announcement. France and Britain already have said they planned to send similar military aid to Syrian rebels.
The State Department official said Kerry was “always considering a variety of options” and planned to revisit the issue April 20 at the next Friends of Syria conference in Istanbul.
“He didn’t promise anything,” the official said of the lunch meeting.
Apart from Hitto, the Syrian delegation included top leaders of the Syrian Opposition Coalition: George Sabra, a prominent Christian who’d taken part in a previous government-forming attempt and is backed by the Muslim Brotherhood; Mustafa Sabbagh, a businessman with extensive financial networks who serves as the coalition’s secretary-general; Suheir al Atassi, who recently resigned her post but apparently remains the coalition’s chief coordinator for humanitarian aid; and Najib Ghadbian and Walid Saffour, the coalition representatives in the United States and Great Britain, respectively.
Yaser Tabbara, spokesman for Hitto, said the interim premier was focused on building a strong executive branch that would reassure Western backers who are now weighing key demands: a no-fly zone, the use of Patriot missiles that are in southern Turkey to counter Assad’s SCUD missiles, and more direct aid for the military wing of the council.
Tabbara said the coalition’s internal divisions are overblown and that Hitto has been working hard to make clear to the armed wing that it has a vital role to play in what he envisions as a ministry of defense that not only will battle Assad’s forces but also pursue “a strategy of military containment” of the Nusra Front. He said Kerry and Hague responded positively to Hitto’s plans.
“We’re very aware of the challenges on the ground for the interim government,” Tabbara said. “But the burden of dealing with these extremists is not on the West’s shoulders or borne by anybody but Syrians. And we need to face that challenge."
Hilal, of the New America Foundation, said the coalition and its nascent temporary government are still unknown entities to most Syrians.
“The Syrians do not know who this Hitto person is. Wherever they are on the political spectrum, they ask: ‘Who is this foreigner?’” Hilal said, a reference to Hitto’s American citizenship and more than 20 years residency in the United States. “The opposition is going to have to do a lot of work to organize local councils and link them up to the government. We’re looking at a much longer process.”
David Enders contributed to this report from Washington.