Al-Qaida leader urges Syrian rebels to stop fighting one another

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BEIRUT -- After nearly three weeks of fighting between rebels in Syria that has killed at least 1,400 people, the head of al-Qaida weighed in Thursday, urging the groups to abandon their internal rivalries and focus instead on overthrowing President Bashar Assad.

Al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri made the plea in an audio statement aimed at calming fighting between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an al-Qaida affiliate, and other rebel groups aimed at pushing ISIS out of areas it had controlled in northern and eastern Syria. ISIS's brutal tactics, including beheadings, as it sought to form an Islamist state in areas it controlled had earned it the enmity of other rebel groups, including the Nusra Front, itself an al-Qaida affiliate.

Meanwhile in Geneva, two protagonists in Syria's bitter civil war will sit down in the same room today at the start of U.N.-sponsored peace talks, but the first item on the agenda -- the agenda itself -- could present a tremendous hurdle, Western diplomats said Thursday.

Mr. Zawahiri's message was directed to both Islamist fighters and, unusually, to rebels who don't accept his group's ideology. "Our hearts and the hearts of the [Muslim] nation, which hangs its hopes on you, have bled for the infighting that has spread between the ranks of those waging jihad for Islam," he said in the five-minute recording.

"We call on all our brothers in all the jihadist groups ... to work towards ending this sedition, which will lead to only God knows what," he said. "Every mujahideen group and every free person in Syria seeking to overthrow al-Assad: Seek an end to fighting between brothers in jihad and Islam immediately."

It is doubtful that Mr. Zawahiri's plea will be heeded. ISIS already has ignored his instruction to confine its activities to Iraq, issued in April when ISIS attempted to take over the Nusra Front. Mr. Zawahiri ruled in June that the Syrian-led Nusra should represent the al-Qaida movement in Syria. ISIS continued to expand its reach into Syria even after Mr. Zawahiri's admonition was posted again in November.

Unlike most other rebel groups, Nusra has been reluctant to confront ISIS directly in the most recent fighting, though its fighters have clashed with ISIS occasionally. ISIS has lost ground in Idlib and Latakia provinces but has consolidated control of the provincial capital of Raqqa, so rebel-held areas are crisscrossed with competing zones of control.

On Sunday, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi issued a statement of his own, calling for the fighting to end and apparently ordering his men to halt retaliatory attacks on other rebels, which have included more than a dozen suicide car bombings.

"We have not been able to prevent this battle and were forced to fight," he said in an unverified audiotape on jihadist websites. "If someone stops firing at you, stop firing at them. Fight together against one enemy we all have."

That Mr. Zawahiri didn't directly make rulings on who was in the wrong or specifically order groups to take a course of action led some experts to conclude that al-Qaida Central, as many refer to the original group founded by Osama bin Laden, has lost influence over its local affiliates' operations.

"Super-weak statement from Zawahiri on Syria," J.M. Berger, who writes extensively on al-Qaida, said on his Twitter feed. "Says he'll support whomever jihadis choose to lead. Essentially concedes he has no control."

In Geneva, the United Nations' special envoy for Syria, Algeria's Lakhdar Brahimi, was to convene today's talks at 11 a.m. (5 a.m. EST) in the cavernous Palais des Nations, the U.N.'s European headquarters. His top priority, other than to prevent either side from walking out, will be to try to develop forward momentum.

The Syrian Opposition Coalition wants the talks to focus on replacing Assad with an interim government agreeable to both sides, in line with an "action plan" the United States and Russia agreed to in June 2012. But there is no sign that the Syrian leader is prepared to step down.

"Obviously, he is not ready at this point in time," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told Al-Arabiya television during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. But he noted that there is "no way the opposition is ever going to consent to Assad being part of any future government."

Instead of joining a debate over the makeup of a new government, the Syrian government's chief negotiator, Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, said he plans to focus on so-called confidence-building measures, such as prisoner exchanges, local cease-fires and humanitarian relief.

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