Al Qaeda cancels merger of Iraqi, Syrian factions

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri dissolved the partnership between the group's Iraqi and Syrian factions on Monday, highlighting the growing tensions between Islamic extremists and rebel forces fighting in Syria's ongoing civil war. 

"The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is canceled, and work continues under the name the Islamic State of Iraq," al-Zawahri said in a statement released to Al Jazeera. 

The Egyptian cleric and former No. 2 official in al Qaeda took control of the terror group after U.S. forces killed al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in May 2011. 

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The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant was formed earlier this year, merging al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the Syrian-based Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN). 

AQI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the official merger of the Iraqi affiliate and the JAN terror group into a single organization in early April. 

The new al Qaeda affiliate signaled the expanding influence of AQI in the region and the growing strength of JAN among the ranks of Syrian rebels battling to oust longtime President Bashar Assad.

But growing divisions between al Qaeda's Iraqi cell and al-Nusra's senior leadership, as well as the Sunni opposition groups that make up the majority of the Syrian rebel forces, forced al-Zawahri to take action, according to Reuters

"The Nusra Front for the People of the Levant is an independent branch" of al Qaeda, Zawahri said, adding both factions must "stop arguing in this dispute, and to stop the harassment among the Muslims" in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. 

JAN leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani, vowed his group would continue to back the Syrian opposition to topple Assad, and not fight to overthrow the embattled leader just to bring al Qaeda to power in Syria.

Internal fighting between AQI and JAN has been compounded by efforts from the Sunni opposition leaders to drive out Islamic militants from the rebels' ranks. 

"There are increasing indications though that the moderate Islamists are ... not comfortable" with AQI and al-Nusra joining forces, attempting to co-opt the opposition to establish al Qaeda in Syria, Director for National Intelligence James Clapper told House Intelligence Committee members in April. 

"There are indications of divisiveness among the Sunni opposition groups," he added during the hearing, shortly before the AQI announcement on the merger. 

"So how that will play out, hard to say. That's something we're watching carefully," Clapper noted. 

Defense Department and U.S. intelligence officials have been wary of infiltration of anti-Assad forces by JAN fighters and other militant groups — with the support of AQI — into the Syrian opposition since the early days of the uprising.

Those concerns have been the major roadblock in possible U.S.-led efforts to provide small arms and heavy weaponry to anti-Assad forces, due to fears those weapons could end up in the hands of al Qaeda fighters.

But as the civil war in Syria enters its third year, congressional pressure on the Obama administration to provide military support for the rebels has ramped up significantly.

Obama is said to be meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry and other Cabinet officials this week to discuss the issue of possibly providing arms to Syrian opposition forces. 

“At the president’s direction, his national security team continues to consider all possible options that would accomplish our objectives of helping the Syrian opposition serve the essential needs of the Syrian people and hastening a political transition to a post-Assad Syria,” National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan told The Hill on Monday.