BEIRUT -- The leader of the primary U.S.-backed Syrian opposition group, who criticized the United States last year for designating the rebel Nusra Front a terrorist organization linked to al Qaida, now is urging Nusra’s fighters to break ties with al Qaida.
In a speech before opponents of the Bashar Assad regime in Turkey earlier this week, Moaz al Khatib, the head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, also called on Nusra leaders to stop trying to impose religious law in areas of Syria that they control.
“You are welcome to call people to Allah with wisdom and a good example, but be sure not to involve yourself, and people around you, in minor things that have no priority,” he said. “For example, one group has banned smoking. Honestly, I believe smoking is un-Islamic, but is this any priority now?”
He also warned against forcing women to cover themselves, calling that “a matter connected to people’s own personal convictions.”
Khatib’s speech, at a gathering Monday called the Islam and Transitional Justice Conference held among Syrian opposition leaders in Istanbul, was his first public statement openly criticizing Nusra since that group announced last week that it had sworn fealty to Ayman al Zawahiri, the Egyptian physician who replaced the late Osama bin Laden as al Qaida’s leader. A copy of the speech was distributed by his office.
For months, Nusra’s role as the most militarily successful anti-Assad rebel faction has raised questions about whether weapons and other assistance provided to the rebels by the United States and other nations would fall into the hands of Nusra or its parent organization, the Islamic State of Iraq, an al Qaida affiliate that fought the U.S. Army and continues to fight the Iraqi government and military.
Khatib appeared to be trying to show with his speech that he was taking on the issue of Islamist extremism within the rebel movement, from which Nusra and other radical factions are drawing a growing number of recruits.
In December, shortly after the U.S. announced that it considered Nusra another name for the group al Qaida in Iraq, Khatib seemed to endorse the group. “The logic under which we consider one of the parts that fights against the Assad regime as a terrorist organization is a logic one must reconsider,” Khatib said in Marrakesh, Morocco, after more than 100 nations agreed to recognize the Syrian Opposition Coalition as the “legitimate representative” of the Syrian people.
On Monday, he took a decidedly different course.
“I hereby announce clearly that we reject all outsider ideologies that come from unknown sources and, specifically, we reject the ideology of al Qaida,” he said. “We have always been, in Syria, the source of moderate Islam.”
He called on members of Nusra to “change your current name, al Nusra” and select “clear leaders . . . that are affiliated with our known Syrian references.”
Whether Khatib’s speech will have an impact in Syria is unknown. While the United States has pledged $60 million to the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the group has yet to show that it has much influence with rebel fighters in the country. Nusra fighters, meanwhile, have led many of the rebels’ most recent military successes in Syria.
The growth of Nusra and its effort to impose its view of Islam in the parts of Syria it controls has sparked dissent. Some rebels from other armed groups in Syria’s north and east speak of the need for a “Sahwa movement,” a reference to the Sunni Muslim tribes in Iraq who took up arms against al Qaida in Iraq, with U.S. military backing.
Nusra’s leaders have said repeatedly that they oppose holding elections if Assad falls, a position that’s increased tensions with rebel groups that favor a democratic system of government.
Louay Meqdad, a spokesman for the Supreme Military Command, which is affiliated with Khatib’s opposition coalition and which oversees the operations of moderate rebels who call themselves the Free Syrian Army, claimed that his battalions would fight Nusra.
“As the FSA, our aim is to have a democratic country, and we don’t want Nusra or any other group to impose its ideas,” Meqdad said. “We as the FSA are only interested in protecting the revolution and the people, and our aim is to protect this and let the people live. And anyone who tries to impose anything on the Syrian people by force . . . the FSA today, and the national army after the fall of Assad, will be obligated to defend those goals that they are fighting for now, and by all means necessary.”
McClatchy Special correspondent Nabih Boulos contributed to this report.