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Syria’s Islamist Nusra Rebels Pledge Allegiance to al-Qaida

Syria's al-Nusra rebels posted this photo of its fighters using an M-60 anti-tank weapons, March 24, 2013

Syria's al-Nusra rebels posted this photo of its fighters using an M-60 anti-tank weapons, March 24, 2013

The head of Syria's main Islamist rebel group has sworn allegiance to al-Qaida, deepening a rift with moderate rebels over how to rule the nation if they topple President Bashar al-Assad.

Abu Mohammad al-Golani, leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, made the pledge of loyalty to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in an audio message posted on militant websites Wednesday.

Golani also acknowledged that his group receives logistical support and training from al-Qaida's Iraq-based affiliate, AQI. He expressed "pride" in AQI’s achievements, but said it did not consult him before declaring that both groups have merged under the banner of the "Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant."

AQI chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the alliance in a separate audio message posted on the Internet a day before.

Earlier in the week, Zawahiri sent out his own Internet message urging all Islamist militants in the region to join forces to create an Islamist state in Syria.

The United States exposed the Nusra Front's al-Qaida links last December, calling it a "terrorist" group created by AQI to "hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes."

Washington Institute for Near East Policy analyst Aaron Zelin said AQI acknowledged forming the Nusra Front because its position in Syria has become secure enough for it to confirm what many observers already had known.

In the past year, Nusra Front militants have captured towns and bases from the Assad government, earning them a reputation as a formidable force. Their suicide bombers also have killed many Syrian troops and authorities.

Zelin said Nusra fighters also have won support from Syrians by taking responsibility for local governance in rebel-held northern and eastern communities.

"They have been seen as doing it in a fair manner and also providing these services at a below-market price," Zelin said. "As a result, people have been appreciative of this and therefore they are seen as a good force within the rebellion."

Benedetta Berti, a researcher at Tel Aviv University’s National Security Studies Institute, said AQI’s support has helped the Nusra Front to "outperform" the secular and lesser-equipped factions of the Syrian opposition.

But she said the group also owes its success to Sunni-dominated Arab states Qatar and Saudi Arabia delivering weapons to Islamists in Syria to help oust Mr. Assad, an ally of Shi'ite-majority Iran.

"It is a combination of a number of factors: the cooperation with al-Qaida in Iraq, the arrival of better weapons for these Islamist groups, and also the fact that they been showing a high degree of cohesion and internal discipline," said Berti.

In his audio message, Nusra Front chief Golani said his rebels will continue to fight under their original flag, an indication that they want to maintain some independence from AQI.

Zelin said Nusra rebels have avoided calling themselves "al-Qaida in Syria" partly because of the stigma associated with AQI, a Sunni group that has alienated many Iraqis in recent years by attacking civilians, especially Iraqi Shi'ites.

"They wanted people to get to know Jabhat al-Nusra for who they were themselves, [rather than] basing [opinions] off of what they perceived as potential media distortions," said Zelin.

Berti said the Nusra Front also has tried to present itself as committed to Syria rather than pursuing a transnational Islamist agenda.

"I think at the moment we'll see very much a [Nusra Front] stance in Syria focused on that particular conflict, without any particular interest in expanding their battlefield, which is already very complex and challenging."

Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said the Nusra Front’s goal of imposing al-Qaida’s extreme interpretation of Islam on Syrians may backfire.

"There has been a small backlash against some of the social issues that they are trying to push, in terms of banning alcohol or forcing women to wear the full veil as well as some other issues. But this is still not that large scale," said Zelin.

Tel Aviv University analyst Berti said that if the radical Islamists continue to grow more powerful, they will become a "nightmare" for moderate and secular Syrian rebels who want an orderly and peaceful transition of power.

"On the one hand, one can read the interviews of [outgoing Syrian opposition coalition leader Mouaz] al-Khatib and see a view of a country that is pluralist, respectful of minorities, good for democracy, and all these ideas. And on the other hand, you can read the statements of the al-Nusra Front and see that their idea of what Syria should look like is the exact opposite."

Berti said how those different visions can coexist after Assad leaves power is a predicament that is likely to pre-occupy Syria's moderate opposition in the coming weeks.

Susan Yackee contributed to this report.