Al-Qaeda vows to attack Syrian rebels

Syrian rebels last week launched a series of coordinated strikes against ISIL in northern and eastern Syria.

FILE: A Syrian rebel fighter during clashes with pro-regime forces on 8 November, 2013, in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. Picture: AFP.

BEIRUT - An al-Qaeda affiliate based in Iraq and Syria has vowed to crush rebel groups fighting it and to target members loyal to the Syrian National Coalition, the internationally recognised opposition trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

The audio statement from the spokesman of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant was issued late on Tuesday, hours after the head of the al-Qaeda branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, called for a truce to halt five days of heavy rebel infighting.

The clashes have pitted many rebel groups in Syria, including Islamist forces, against ISIL and have been the bloodiest rebel-on-rebel violence since the civil war in Syria began in the first half of 2011.

"Crush them completely and kill the conspiracy in its cradle," said the group's spokesman, known as Abu Mohammed al-Adnani.

While both the Nusra Front and ISIL have roots in the global al-Qaeda network and welcome foreign militants, the Nusra Front has focused its goals on toppling Assad instead of creating an Islamic state, which has been the main aim of ISIL.

Nusra forces have also cooperated more with other rebel groups and largely avoided the power struggles that ISIL has faced since wresting control of many opposition-held areas from other groups.

ISIL is the restructured al-Qaeda branch of Iraq, but its spread into Syria is opposed by al-Qaeda's central leadership, which has recognised the Nusra Front instead.

Adnani said fellow Islamists from the Sunni Muslim sect had been dragged into a conspiracy against it.

Rebel groups last week launched what appeared to be a series of coordinated strikes against ISIL in northern and eastern Syria after months of increasing tensions with the group, which has alienated many Syrians in rebel-held regions.

The fighting was endorsed by the opposition's mainstream National Council, which is backed by Western and Gulf states.

Adnani also told ISIL fighters to "pluck the heads" of any National Coalition leaders or rebel groups tied to them.

"Kill them wherever you find them and without dignity," he said. "They launched this war against us and started it."

It was impossible to verify the authenticity of the statement, but it was widely cited on Islamist social networks on the Internet.

More than 274 people have been killed in the rebel infighting since Friday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition monitoring group.

Meanwhile, a group of al-Qaeda gunmen on Monday seeking to form a radical Islamic state out of the chaos of Syria's civil war were fighting hard to reconquer the province they once controlled in neighbouring Iraq, stirring fears the conflict is exporting ever more instability.

Exploiting local grievances against Baghdad's rule and buoyed by al-Qaeda gains in Syria, the fighters have taken effective control of Anbar's two main cities for the first time since US occupation troops defeated them in 2006-07.

Their advance is ringing alarm bells in Washington: The US has pledged to help Baghdad quell the militant surge in Anbar - although not with troops - to stabilise a province that saw the heaviest fighting of the US occupation.

Washington announced it was speeding up deliveries of military equipment to help Baghdad fight the gunmen. This would include missiles, surveillance drones and helicopters.

ISIL has a tough potential foe in Anbar's well-armed tribes, fellow Sunnis ill-disposed to ceding power to al-Qaeda even if they share ISIL's hostility to the Shi'ite-led central government.

And the group's goal of creating a hardline Islamic state reaching into Syria is still seen by many as far-fetched.