LONDON — The jihadist group at the forefront of Syrian rebel gains pledged allegiance Wednesday to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, illustrating the bind Western governments are in 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 al-Zawahiri, who became the top al-Qaida leader after the slaying of Osama bin Laden.
But the timing of the development, as moderate Syrian leaders were seeking more help from the West, shows 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.”
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Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani made his fealty to al-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.
Al-Golani 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.
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 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 among jihadist groups 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. Al-Golani’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, 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.
CNN reported this week that the Obama 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 have said they planned to send similar military aid to Syrian rebels.