02/03/2014 12:27 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2014

Al Qaeda Cuts Off Powerful But Brutal Islamist Group In Syria


BEIRUT -- In the latest sign of schisms within the Syrian rebel armies fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad, the central leadership of al-Qaeda sharply renounced ties with the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

For ISIS, as the group is widely known, the blunt statement from al-Qaeda reinforced its pariah status as a militant body so inflexible that it is shunned even by other hardline Islamists. Having emerged as a major power on the ground in Syria last year, ISIS amassed enemies by trying to marginalize other rebel groups and consolidate its own power. It also enraged Syrian civilians by imposing a harsh version of Islamic law on areas under its control, sometimes beheading those deemed enemies.

In its statement posted in Arabic on prominent online jihadi forums, al-Qaeda’s central command declared that "ISIS is not a branch of AQ & we have no organizational relationship with it," according to a translation from Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Al-Qaeda added that it bore no responsibility for ISIS' actions in Syria.

Those words were "far more significant than any previous statements," Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, said via Twitter.

What had been seething anger against ISIS turned into open warfare last month, as rival rebel armies directly attacked its positions inside Syria. At the same time, growing numbers of jihadi leaders and Islamist scholars have condemned ISIS. Al-Qaeda's disavowal came just hours after ISIS rejected an effort by an influential jihadi leader in Syria to mediate disputes between Islamist groups, according to Lister.

"The outbreak of fighting between ISIS and other Syrian rebel groups on 3 January made it inevitable that [al-Qaeda head Ayman] Zawahiri and [al-Qaeda command] would have to issue a decisive ruling with permanent consequences," Lister said in a statement emailed to reporters. "And this is it."

Some analysts saw substantial symbolic value in al-Qaeda's statement, suggesting that it could further isolate ISIS while creating an opportunity for other rebel groups to boost their credibility in the eyes of fellow opposition fighters.

"The fact that you have such ... jihadi weight now being thrown behind the anti-ISIS narrative, one would expect it would make it easier for those seeking to fight ISIS to justify that fight to their local base, to their fighters," Noah Bonsey, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, told The WorldPost.

Among the prime beneficiaries may be Jabhat al-Nusra, which al-Qaeda named in the statement as its official branch in Syria. While the group subscribes to hardline Islamist doctrine, it has gained a reputation as a pragmatic group that Bonsey said is viewed as "an authentic part of the rebellion."

But if the growing movement against ISIS may help the rebels isolate their most toxic members, Lister cautioned that it will still distract the opposition regardless of who prevails in the infighting.

"In the immediate term, all of this is damaging to the Syrian revolution," he wrote in the email. "These inter-group hostilities make any kind of provincial, let alone national, opposition victory in Syria highly unlikely."