Syrian rebel group swears loyalty to al-Qaida, raises concerns

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BEIRUT -- Tensions emerged Wednesday in a newly announced alliance between al-Qaida's franchise in Iraq and the most powerful Syrian rebel faction, which said it was not consulted before the Iraqi group announced their merger and only heard about it through the media.

Al-Qaida in Iraq said Tuesday that it had joined forces with Jabhat al-Nusra or the Nusra Front -- the most effective force among the mosaic of rebel brigades fighting to topple President Bashar Assad in Syria's civil war. It said they had formed a new alliance called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

The Syrian government seized upon the purported merger to back its assertion that it is not facing a true popular movement for change, but rather a foreign-backed terrorist plot. The state news agency said Wednesday that the union "proves that this opposition was never anything other than a tool used by the West and by terrorists to destroy the Syrian people."

Talk of an alliance between Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaida in Iraq has raised fears in Baghdad, where intelligence officials said increased cooperation was already evident in a number of deadly attacks.

And in Syria, a stronger Jabhat al-Nusra would only further complicate the battlefield where Western powers have been covertly trying to funnel weapons, training and aid toward more secular rebel groups and army defectors.

Washington has designated Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization over its links with al-Qaida, and the Syrian group's now-public ties with the terrorist network are unlikely to prompt a shift in international support for the broader Syrian opposition. Earlier this year, the United States announced a $60 million non-lethal assistance package for Syria that includes meals and medical supplies for the armed opposition. It was greeted unenthusiastically by some rebel leaders, who said it does far too little.

Washington's next step is expected to be a broader package of non-lethal assistance, expanding from food and medical supplies to body armor and night-vision goggles. But President Barack Obama has not given final approval on any new package, and an announcement is not imminent, a senior administration official said.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who met Wednesday in London with Syrian opposition leaders, hinted at the new non-lethal aid package this week, saying the administration had been holding intense talks on how to boost assistance to the rebels. The United States opposes directly arming Syrian opposition fighters, in part out of fear that the weapons could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists such as Jabhat al-Nusra.

The apparent tensions between Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaida in Iraq emerged Wednesday, when Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani appeared to distance himself from claims that the two groups had merged. Instead, he pledged allegiance to al-Qaida's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Mr. Golani said he was not consulted about the merger and only heard about it through the media. He did not deny that the two groups had united, but remained vague, saying the announcement was premature and that his group will continue to use Jabhat al-Nusra as its name.

"The banner of the Front will remain unchanged despite our pride in the banner of the State and those who carried it and sacrificed and shed their blood for it," he said in a reference to al-Qaida in Iraq, formally known as the Islamic State in Iraq.

The message appeared to be, at least in part, an effort by Jabhat al-Nusra to reassure Syrians that the group remains dedicated to the uprising to oust Mr. Assad and is not beholden to non-Syrian interests, despite its pledge of fealty to al-Qaida.

"What you saw from the Front of its defense of your religion, honors and blood, and its good qualities with you and the fighting groups, will remain as you experienced it," Mr. Golani said in remarks addressed to the Syrian people. "The announcement of the pledge of allegiance will not change anything in its [Nusra's] policy."

Mr. Golani's message was first reported by the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist websites.

Earlier this week, Mr. Zawahiri urged Islamic fighters in Syria to unite in their efforts to oust Mr. Assad. That may have provided at least part of the impetus for the announced merger with al-Qaida in Iraq.

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