ISTANBUL — One week after radical Islamists in Iraq declared a “caliphate” spanning the Iraqi-Syria border with its capital in Mosul, al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al Nusra, said it is setting up an “emirate” in rebel-held parts of Aleppo.
Nusra leader Abu Muhammad Al Jolani, who rarely appears in public, on Friday wished his militants the “glad tidings” of an Islamic emirate that aims at implementing Sharia, a strict Islamic law, the Aleppo Media Center said.
Jolani told his fighters that Aleppo will witness the birth of the first Islamic emirate, and the experience will then be replicated in other areas, even as the movement attempts to break the siege of rebel-held territories by the Assad regime, according to a Nusra member contacted by the Media Center.
Jolani also told his followers to be fully prepared to fight anyone who opposed the Islamic emirate — an apparent reference not only to the newly declared Islamic State ‘caliphate,’ but also to moderate pro-Western fighters who are unlikely to agree to pledge their loyalty to him.
The Media Center, which has a reputation for fact-checking, did not name its source within the secretive Nusra movement. The location from which Jolani spoke was not known.
Jolani’s call seemed certain to undercut Nusra’s collaboration with moderate pro-western rebel groups, and it could devastate the opposition to the Assad regime.
Capt. Jamil al Saleh of the military council in Hama, central Syria, said that from this point on, “there is no need” for Syrian President Bashar Assad “to bother fighting us. We will kill one another.”
An activist in Khan Shaikhun in Idib province, which is dominated by Nusra, said, “I don’t see acceptance of this idea in my city.”
Unlike the announcement one week earlier by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the self-styled caliph of the Islamic State, Jolani’s declaration appeared to be a sign of weakness. Baghdadi spoke in a principal mosque of Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city, after his Islamic State forces and other Sunnis seized about a third of Iraqi territory.
But Nusra and other rebels are under severe pressure in Aleppo, which regime forces have nearly surrounded. Moreover, the rapid gains in Iraq by Baghdadi’s Islamic State, have knocked the rebel movement in Syria off balance.
Baghdadi had supported the Nusra movement after its founding in early 2012, providing manpower and weapons. But in April 2013, he announced the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which he said would supersede Nusra. Jolani rejected the takeover, and re-established Nusra, and by early this year the two extremist groups were fighting each other.
Jolani’s statement Friday appeared to be an attempt to head off defections to Baghdadi’s Islamic State. In critical towns along Syria’s border with Iraq, Nusra fighters have switched sides and joined the Islamic State.
Mounir Al Ali, an activist in Idlib who is close to Nusra, said via Skype that he thinks that parts of Jolani’s speech were leaked as a message to Baghdadi that Jolani will not pledge fealty to the caliphate.
Jolani’s announcement of his emirate followed a minor advance on the ground, coming one day after the group captured heavy weapons and a sizable ammunition stock from the regime after a suicide bomb in Al Rahajan village in the Syrian desert in the east of Hama.
Abu Muhammad Al Ghabi, a rebel leader from the area, said that Nusra has seized two T72 tanks, one armored personnel carrier, four 130 mm artillery pieces in addition to heavy machine guns and large quantity of spare parts and ammunition.
Al Ghabi said the capture of the village was also important for cutting the regime’s supply route to Aleppo, but he said he doubted that this was the aim of the battle.
Al Hamadee is a McClatchy special correspondent. Roy Gutman in Istanbul contributed to this report.