A man claiming to be the head of a key group fighting the Syrian government has purportedly pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda, but also distanced his group from earlier claims it had merged with the Iraq branch of the armed group.
The announcement came as the Syrian opposition told Al Jazeera it was asking for more help, including sophisticated weapons, from world leaders.
“The sons of Al-Nusra Front pledge allegiance to Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri,” the man who identified himself as Abu Mohammed al Julani said in an audio clip posted on YouTube that went public on Wednesday.
Zawahiri is known to be the chief commander of al-Qaeda.
Julani, who is recognised as the head of the group Jabat al Nusra, or Al-Nusra Front, said in the video that his fighters had declared from the start of the uprising that Islamic law needs to be enforced across Syria, but did not want to announce the group’s affiliation to al-Qaeda prematurely.
He said “we were not consulted” on an announcement by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, al-Qaeda in Iraq chief, on Tuesday of a merger with the Al-Nusra Front.
“We inform you that neither the Al-Nusra command nor its consultative council, nor its general manager were aware of this announcement. It reached them via the media and if the speech is authentic, we were not consulted,” Julani said.
Rebel group’s reaction
The Free Syria Army, the main rebel fighters in Syria, distanced themselves from Jabhat al-Nusra following the new revelations.
“We don’t support the ideology of Al-Nusra,” Louay Muqdad, FSA spokesman, told AFP news agency, stressing: “There has never been and there will never be a decision at the command level to coordinate with Al-Nusra.”
Al Jazeera’s Sue Turton, reporting from Antakya in neighbouring Turkey, said the conflicting statements confirm the divisions between group fighting against the Syrian government.
“The first statement came from the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, [Abu Muhammed Al-Julani] who gave the first real confirmation that his group was affiliated with al-Qaeda, he even said that the Iraqi al-Qaeda had given the group half of its money to start the fight against the regime,” she said.
“But he insisted that this did not mean it would sideline the other groups they were fighting alongside of against the Assad regime.:
Julani said in the video that his group would not be changing its “behaviour”.
“Al-Nusra Front will not change its flag, though we will continue to be proud of the flag of the Islamic State of Iraq, of those who carry it and those who sacrifice themselves and shed their blood for it,” Julani said, acknowledging he had fought in Iraq alongside al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch.
“We reassure our brothers in Syria that Al-Nusra Front’s behaviour will remain faithful to the image you have come to know, and that our allegiance [to al-Qaeda] will not affect our politics in any way.”
Al Jazeera could not independently verify that the audio clip was a genuine recording.
Meanwhile, a Syrian fighter jet dropped five shells on Wednesday on a rural area in northeastern Lebanon near the Syrian border, a military official told AFP news agency.
“A Syrian jet dropped five shells on the outskirts of Sarjal Ajram. No one was hurt,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
Appeal for lethal arms
On the diplomatic front, Syrian opposition leaders renewed their appeals for arms at a meeting on Wednesday with John Kerry, US secretary of state.
Kerry and other G8 foreign ministers held talks with members of the Syrian National Coalition, including Ghassan Hitto, opposition prime minister, on the sidelines of a two-day ministerial meeting in London.
Yasser Tabbara, spokesperson for Hitto, told Al Jazeera that Hitto’s visit to London “is to express the direct [demand] that we need their help in establishing a no-fly zone, and give leverage to those on the ground to tip the balance against the Assad regime”.
A top State Department official confirmed that, during a lunch hosted by William Hague, UK foreign secretary, the Syrian opposition delegates renewed appeals for lethal aid but Kerry “didn’t promise anything”.
The US did say that it was mulling ways to step up help for Syria’s rebels. A US official said Kerry will attend a Friends of Syria core group meeting on April 20 in the Turkish city of Istanbul.
Separately, Kerry met Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, in an effort to find common ground on ending the Syrian conflict.