Official: Islamic State, al-Qaida to work together
Istanbul – — Militant leaders from the Islamic State group and al-Qaida gathered at a farm house in northern Syria last week and agreed on a plan to stop fighting each other and work together against their opponents, a high-level Syrian opposition official and a rebel commander have told the Associated Press.
Such an accord could present new difficulties for Washington’s strategy against the IS group. While warplanes from a U.S.-led coalition strike militants from the air, the Obama administration has counted on arming “moderate” rebel factions to push them back on the ground. Those rebels, already considered relatively weak and disorganized, would face far stronger opposition if the two heavy-hitting militant groups now are working together.
IS — the group that has seized nearly a third of Syria and Iraq with a campaign of brutality and beheadings this year — and al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, known as the Nusra Front, have fought each other bitterly for more than a year to dominate the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The Associated Press reported late last month on signs that the two groups appear to have curtailed their feud with informal local truces. Their new agreement, according to the sources in rebel groups opposed to both IS and Nusra Front, would involve a promise to stop fighting and team up in attacks in some areas of northern Syria.
Cooperation, however, would fall short of unifying the rival groups, and experts believe any pact between the two sides could easily unravel. U.S. intelligence officials have been watching the groups closely and say a full merger is not expected soon — if ever. A U.S. official with access to intelligence about Syria said the American intelligence community has not seen any indications of a shift in the two groups’ strategy, but added that he could not rule out tactical deals on the ground. The official insisted on anonymity because he said he was not authorized to speak publicly about the subject.
According to a Syrian opposition official speaking in Turkey, the meeting took place Nov. 2 in the town of Atareb, west of Aleppo, starting at around midnight and lasting until 4 a.m. The official said the meeting was closely followed by members of his movement, and he is certain that an agreement was reached. The official said about seven top militant leaders attended.
A second source, a commander of brigades affiliated with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army who is known as Abu Musafer, said he also had learned that high-ranking members of Nusra and IS met on Nov. 2.
The opposition official said IS and the Nusra Front agreed to work to destroy the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, a prominent rebel faction armed and trained by the United States.
More U.S. troops possible in Iraq
■The Pentagon warned Congress on Thursday that the long, drawn-out military campaign against Islamic State militants is just beginning and could expand to include modest numbers of U.S. forces fighting alongside Iraqi troops.
■The Obama administration is asking Congress to exempt its military effort against the Islamic State from a longstanding ban on U.S. assistance to torturers and war criminals. The move highlights doubts about finding “clean” American allies in a region wracked by ethnic animosity and religious extremism.