ISTANBUL -- The two Islamist fighting forces in Syria affiliated with al Qaida on Tuesday appeared to be on the edge of an all-out conflict, with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria declaring war on all other factions in the Syrian resistance Tuesday with a blood-curdling statement that urged fighters to “show no mercy” in their 5-day-old conflict.
“We have armies in Iraq and Syria full of hungry lions, who drink their blood and consume their flesh, and they find nothing tastier than the blood” of the groups now fighting ISIS, said Abu Muammad al Adnani, the ISIS spokesman.
The statement, in an audio recording posted to YouTube, came on the heels of a firm but measured declaration of resistance by Jabhat al Nusra.
Both ISIS and Nusra are affiliated with al Qaida. ISIS consists mainly of foreign fighters and is directed from Iraq, while Nusra is Syrian-based and consists mainly of Syrian fighters.
Together, the statements confirmed the fighting that began Friday has turned into an all-out battle pitting all factions in Syria against ISIS.
Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al Julani charged that ISIS’ “misguided policies had a significant role in instigating the conflict.”
“We will defend ourselves against any aggression directed against us, from whatever source,” he said in a recorded statement.
The two radical Islamist forces squared off amid reports that dozens more captured civilians and soldiers have been executed by ISIS fighters.
The surprise offensive has forced ISIS to abandon many of the bases and towns its forces had occupied in the past six months in northern Syria.
Heavy fighting was reported Tuesday around at least three remaining locations occupied by ISIS – Raqqa, the capital of the northeastern province; Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city; and Saraqeb, an important crossroads town in Idlib province, where ISIS was reported to be sending reinforcements.
Reports of two new massacres by ISIS centered on the base it set up at the Eye Hospital grounds in Aleppo’s Kadi Askar neighborhood. They were likely to add to the growing public fury at ISIS, which until last week dominated the main border crossings into Turkey.
In the first reported massacre, a Syrian media activist was reported as witnessing the execution of 22 civilians, among them five media activists. Four belonged to Nusra and one was a Syrian working for a Saudi television channel, Shadha Alhuria, local activists said.
The second massacre was discovered at the same base by a Nusra fighter who was on a visit, according to leading media activists in Aleppo.
Western reporters have been threatened by ISIS with indefinite detention if they try to cover rebel-held territory, so the allegations could not be independently confirmed.
Ahmad al Ukda, a member of the Union of Syrian Journalists in Aleppo, told McClatchy that a media activist had personally witnessed the execution of the 22 civilians, some of whom were citizen journalists. Other colleagues said the media activist had been covering the fighting from the side of the anti-ISIS rebel forces besieging the ISIS position.
The second reported massacre occurred at the same location.
Ghassan Yassin, a journalist and activist in Aleppo, said a fighter with Nusra saw the corpses of the dead while on a visit to the Kadi Askar base. The soldier had received permission from ISIS to visit his brother, who was supposed to have been detained by ISIS, and was astonished to find him dead among at least 20 corpses – some of them Nusra fighters.
The soldier declined to be interviewed by McClatchy via Skype.
ISIS, whose main tactic is the use of suicide bombers, now is using that strategy to break into the garrisons of other resistance groups and to attack civilians. One attack was made against a base of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army in Darkoush, a town northwest of Idlib, and there were reports of a second attack against the Islamist group Ahrar al Sham.
In an audio tape Tuesday, Julani said the disagreements with ISIS “have accumulated over time without any means of resolution.”
He cited the case of Nusra’s top commander in Raqqa province, Abu Saad al Hadrami, whom he said ISIS had kidnapped, and whose fate today “is between missing and killed.”
He called for a cease-fire with ISIS, in order to strengthen the battle against the Assad regime, and urged ISIS to resolve its differences with the other groups through recourse to religious courts. But he said for Nusra, the ISIS behavior so far amounted to sedition.
The 37-minute statement by Adnani, the ISIS spokesman, singled out anyone linked with the Western-backed Syrian Opposition Coalition, as well as the Supreme Military Council, as “targets of ISIS.” He labeled the rising against ISIS an “awakening,” similar to the rising of Sunni tribes against al Qaida in Iraq that began in 2005 during the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
He said anyone who calls for a secular state in Syria – as does the Syrian Opposition Coalition – “is an agent for and a partner of the Jews and the Crusaders,” a favorite jihadi reference to Israel and the West.
He called on the factions fighting ISIS to “repent or face the same fate as the awakening movements of Iraq.” But he called on the ISIS fighters to “show no mercy to their enemy, ‘the awakenings.’”
Nusra announced its presence on the Syrian scene in January 2012, 10 months after the start of the national uprising against President Bashar Assad. Its membership was comprised largely of Syrians who had fought in Iraq against the American invasion. Following a public appeal by al Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri a short time later, foreign volunteers started arriving to fill its ranks.
It was widely viewed as the most effective of the forces fighting the Assad regime until April 2013, when Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State of Iraq, announced that ISIS would take over for Nusra.
Julani publicly rejected Baghdadi’s claim, Baghdadi broke off along with most of the thousands of foreign volunteers, and the rivalry began.
In the fighting that began Friday, Nusra has attempted to serve as a go-between, helping to negotiate the surrender of ISIS forces, with mixed results.
Julani on Tuesday called on all Nusra fighters to defend the foreign volunteers who’d come to Syria to fight the regime. But he also warned them: “Do not allow your journey and your jihad to be used for any purpose other than the great cause you have joined. Do not allow your fighting to be directed toward other priorities.”