Al-Zawahiri Calls for al-Qaeda- ISIL Axis against Russia & US

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

al-Hayat [Life] reports that on Sunday, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, called for unity between al-Qaeda and Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) in the face of American, Russian and Shiite forces in Syria.

Al-Zawahiri, a mastermind of the September 11 attacks on the US, succeeded Usama Bin Laden when the latter was killed by US troops in May of 2011.

Ayman_Al-Zawahiri Ayman al-Zawahiri: h/t Wikipedia

Al-Zawahiri in his audiotape called for greater unity among Muslim militants in the face of “Russo-American aggression” against Syria and Iraq. He said, “The Americans, Russia, the Iranians, the Alawites and Hizbullah are coordinating their war against us. Are we incapable of halting the fighting among us so that we can direct all of our efforts against them?”

In this recording the al-Qaeda leader appears to have changed his line on Daesh. In a September recording he had refused to recognize the legitimacy of the organization or its leader, self-proclaimed “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He did say that if he were fighting on the ground in Iraq or Syria, he’d be inclined to cooperate with it.

Al-Zawahiri is the one who ordered the split between his al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria and Daesh. Daesh began as al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia and its then leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had pledged allegiance to Usama Bin Laden. But after the civil war began in Syria, the Support Front (Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate) and Daesh began disagreeing. Daesh tactics are to avoid as much as possible fighting the army of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and instead to watch while other rebel groups take territory away from the regime, and then swoop in and grab that liberated territory from its putative allies.

Daesh’s pattern of opportunistically preying on its colleagues caused al-Zawahiri to toss it out of al-Qaeda.

The Support Front or al-Qaeda in Syria holds the Golan Heights on the Syrian side, as well as a big swathe of territory in Idlib Province. It has made a shaky coalition with the Freemen of Syria (Ahrar al-Sham), a Saudi-backed Salafi extremist group, as well as with a group of Muslim Brotherhood militias and and smaller Salafi groups. One of the Salafi groups, Jund al-Aqsa, is also said to have pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda. The coalition is known as the Army of Conquest.

[In the above map, Daesh territory is grey and Jabhat al-Nusra/ al-Qaeda is brown or (with regard to its Army of Conquest coalition, yellow). The al-Qaeda territory in Idlib north of Hama is hard to see for all the Russian bombing.]

The AoC refuses to cooperate with Daesh and has sometimes attacked it effectively. With Saudi and, it is said, Turkish backing, the Army of Conquest has proved the most successful militia besides Daesh itself. Last spring it took Idlib City, the capital of the key northern province of the same name. However, it is widely recognized that the Support Front, i.e. al-Qaeda, is the best set of fighters within the coalition. Jund al-Aqsa itself may have withdrawn from the coalition recently, and there are rumors of al-Qaeda dissatisfaction with the allegedly lax interpretation of Islam of its Salafi allies (!)

What al-Zawahiri is proposing, and this is clearly driven by the Russian intervention, is to lift his anathema against Daesh and have his al-Qaeda minions again cooperate closely with it.

If the Support Front (Nusra) listens to him and again begins cooperating with Daesh, that step will provoke a crisis within the Army of Conquest. The latter refuses to coordinate with Daesh, and I am hoping, at least, that even hard line Salafis such as the Freemen of Syria will continue to honor this red line (likely imposed on them by their Saudi/Turkish sponsors).

A new al-Qaeda-Daesh front would also make things more complicated for the CIA, which seems to be supporting hard line groups such as the Army of Conquest, despite it containing at least one and possibly two al-Qaeda affiliates (shades of Afghanistan in the 1980s!).

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Ruptly TV: “Syria: Military kill, capture Jabhat al-Nusra militants in Atshan operation”

8 Responses

  1. If this evolving situation doesn’t soon bring the US to work together with Putin to resolve the mess, it’s quite possible Europeans will begin to peel off and do so anyway, and that could be far more significant from a global point of view than anything that goes on in the ME.

  2. Hard to come up with a more grim picture: 250,000+ people dead in Syria after 4+ years of conflict, and all there appears to be is more carnage. Your parallel with Afghanistan is particularly apt. That said, with the lessons of Afghanistan, you’d think we would be wiser.

    If either of these two groups that now appear to be cooperating, actually topple the Assad regime, would the world really be a safer place? Would the Syrians be safer, and would we be safer? I can’t see how this scenario is anything but a major catastrophe. Our short term policies of tacitly allowing Saudi Arabia and Turkey to support these groups is costly in terms of money and human lives for the Syrians and the greater middle east. It belies our idealistic vision of a just society, and it also foments discord and strife. The Syrians deserve better and so do we. Extremely difficult to understand why we haven’t levied sanctions upon Saudi Arabia. Their destruction of Yemen; their material and vocal support of extremist groups everywhere; all of this are against international law, human rights law, and are deeply against in the interests of of the people in the middle east as well as ours.

    • International law is an abstraction unless enforceable and enforced. All these groups are armed opponents of the regime one way or another, and for Russian purposes that makes them all the same whether they are in one boat or a flotilla.

      Basically I believe that it is up to the Syrian people who have to decide the future of President Assad.

      Ban Ki-moon told a recent news conference in Geneva. link to af.reuters.com and that means clear the decks of all rebels and call free elections uninfluenced by outside interests.

  3. I am not at all surprised about this development. The least that can be said is that something about this mess is beginning to have some logic.

  4. Paul,

    Al-zawahari is an ineffective leader, an old man without an ounce of charisma. There’s no urgent matter to make him a “martyr”, he the best insurance against a resurgence of al’Quaeda.

  5. Al Zawahiri is appealing to a cannibalistic group for unity that demands that its leader is recognized and obeyed as a so called Caliph, who earlier took issue with the Al Qaeda leader when Al Zawahiri rebuffed al-Baghdadi’s attempt of a merger (or total control) and caused the split, and have then been competing for allegiances from different global extremist groups and individuals. Can’t see the reconciliation happening, no matter how desperate Daesh gets. Can only hope they stay divided and are both taken out one way or another. Unfortunately don’t see that happening any time soon.

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