Al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has ruled against the merger of two jihadi groups based in Syria and Iraq.
Two months ago, the leader the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) – the largest jihadi umbrella group in the country – unilaterally declared a merger with the Syrian-based Jabhat al-Nusra to form a new group, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The leadership of Jabhat al-Nusra, considered a terrorist organisation by the US for its affiliation with al-Qaeda, balked at the declaration by the head of ISI, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Al-Nusra is considered to be one of the most effective armed groups in the battle against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“This [split] was the most dangerous development in the history of global jihad”
-Jabhat al-Nusra fighter
But after Baghdadi released a video in April declaring the formation of the ISIL, many of al-Nusra’s fighters, especially non-Syrians, left to join the new umbrella group.
“This [split] was the most dangerous development in the history of global jihad,” an al-Nusra source inside Syria told Al Jazeera on Saturday.
The divisions and turf battles between commanders prompted the head of al-Nusra, Abu Muhammad al-Joulani, to send a letter to Zawahiri in Afghanistan to arbitrate between the two groups.
Zawahiri’s verdict came this week in letters sent to Joulani and Baghdadi.
According to sources in both groups, Zawahiri ruled that the official branch of al-Qaeda in Syria will be al-Nusra.
Baghdadi’s command is limited to Iraq, according to a note that Joulani circulated to his fighters relaying the wishes of Zawahiri. This note was seen by Al Jazeera and al-Nusra sources confirmed its authenticity.
‘A step backward’
Zawahiri also appointed a local Syrian commander named Abu Khaled al-Soury as a personal emissary “to oversee the implementation of the accord”, according to Joulani’s letter.
Joulani’s letter also urged his fighters to “minimise their difference” and “rebuild harmony” with likeminded Iraq-based jihadists, despite the split.
It is unclear whether Baghdadi will accept the al-Qaeda leader’s ruling, and what effect it will have on the ground.
The fighters who left al-Nusra to join the ISIL might not want to rejoin the group, according to those close to Baghdadi. “Ninety percent of the Arab and foreign fighters [battling in Syria] joined ISIL,” said Abu Osama al-Iraqi, an activist affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq.
“It will be hard for them to take a step backward.”
Despite having al-Qaeda figures within its ranks and sharing much of the group’s ideology, the ISI, formed in 2006, is not an official al-Qaeda franchise.
Joulani’s letter said that al-Nusra’s official publication, al-Manara al-Baydaa (the White Minaret) would “return soon”. It stopped publishing the groups’ news and promotional videos after Baghdadi’s ISIL declaration two months ago.
Challenges on the ground
The final message posted on al-Manara al-Baydaa before it suspended publication was an audio message by Joulani, where he said that he had not been consulted on the formation of the ISIL and insisted his fighters would continue to operate under the al-Nusra banner.
But that message did not deter Baghdadi from travelling from Iraq to the suburbs of Aleppo and trying to open offices there.
The split caused serious problems for al-Nusra, with some fighters estimating that most of their comrades left for the ISIL. Aleppo, the bastion of al-Nusra, saw the least defections from its ranks, fighters said. But even there, the city suffered from the divisions within the group.
Abou Adel, an activist in Aleppo, said al-Nusra was a partner in the legal committee that administers affairs in the city, and this committee was not recognised by ISIL. These sorts of divisions made the everyday practices of governance and fighting even more challenging, the activist said.
“Last week, flour was cut in the city because the fighters protecting the silos had expressed their allegiance to ISIL,” the activist said, providing an example of how political rivalries can play out on the war-torn ground. “They did not give the flour to the committee for distribution.”
Several parties had to intervene to end the flour crisis, he said. But it remains unclear how the lines drawn in the sand between al-Nusra and ISI will affect the broader fight against Assad.
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