Early Monday morning the leadership of al-Qaeda disowned the Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria (ISIS), the most effective of its two franchises fighting in Syria, in a maneuver that could alter the trajectory of the fight against President Bashar Assad. In a message posted on jihadi websites the al-Qaeda general command stated that its former affiliate “is not a branch of the al-Qaeda group [and al-Qaeda] does not have an organizational relationship with it and is not the group responsible for their actions.”
The move had been a long time in the making. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri has grown increasingly frustrated with ISIS, ever since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, expanded into the Syrian conflict in April and attempted to bring the local al-Qaeda franchise, the Nusra Front, under his control. Zawahiri intervened in May, admonishing Baghdadi to go back to Iraq, but Baghdadi refused, snapping back in a terse audio recording. “I have to choose between the rule of God and the rule of Zawahiri, and I choose the rule of God.” It was a rare demonstration of defiance in an organization that demands absolute loyalty. Nonetheless, Zawahiri seemed prepared to let the matter lie, apparently in recognition of Baghdadi’s growing strength; by that time, ISIS, recently strengthened by an influx of foreign fighters, had taken control of the Syrian city of Raqqa. That brought al-Qaeda the closest it had ever been to achieving a longterm goal — establishing an Islamic state.
But ISIS’s savagery and draconian interpretations of Islamic law alienated many Syrians and drove a wedge between rebel groups. On Jan. 3, fighting broke out between ISIS and a new alliance that included the Nusra Front. ISIS has managed to stand its ground, but this most recent al-Qaeda announcement could lead to a greater conflagration. Al-Qaeda central may not have been able to stop Baghdadi outright, but the threat of excommunication seemed to have reined in his worst tendencies — his deadly campaign of suicide-bomb attacks in Iraq has not yet been replicated in Syria to the same degree. ISIS is now likely to lash out with increased attacks as it tries to prove its efficacy in spite of losing its valuable al-Qaeda designation.