Head of Al-Qaida's Syria Branch Says Does Not Seek Rule, Only Islamic Law

With five weeks to go before UN peace talks convene in Geneva, it is unclear who will represent the opposition.

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The leader of Syria's Al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front said in his first televised interview that his group was not seeking to rule Syria, but future rule must be based on Islamic law.

The hardline Nusra Front is one of the most powerful groups fighting alongside rebels trying to topple President Bashar Assad. Its leader, known as Abu Mohammed al-Golani, rarely gives public messages and had never appeared on a public forum until his interview with the pan-Arab news channel Al Jazeera, parts of which were aired late on Wednesday.

Golani was filmed from behind, his face wrapped in a black scarf, with only his hands visible.

"The Nusra Front does not seek to rule society on its own when we reach the stage of the liberation of Sham (Syria)," Abu Golani told Al Jazeera in the pre-recorded interview.

He proposed a legal council made up of Muslim clerics and thinkers who supported the Syrian uprising, even if they were outside the country.

"They will put in place an appropriate plan for running the country, which of course will be based on Islamic sharia, ruling on the basis of God's law," he said.

A full version of Golani's interview will be aired on Thursday on Al Jazeera, the news channel said.

The Nusra Front pledged loyalty to Al-Qaida, which has in turn embraced the group as its franchise in Syria.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was originally the branch of Al-Qaida in Iraq but changed its name and aimed to expand to Syria. ISIL has not been accepted by central Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri as having a legitimate role in Syria.

Nusra fighters want to see a strict version of Islamic law imposed in Syria, but are not seen as being as radical as ISIL. Recently more and more ISIL fighters have filmed themselves executing Muslims that they have declared are apostates, an accusation known as "takfir" in Arabic.

Such tactics, as well as a growing intolerance of rival Syrian rebel groups and critical activists, have made many local residents wary of Islamist forces in rebel-held northern Syria.

In his interview with Al Jazeera, Golani vowed to stop the takfir phenomenon.

"We strongly condemn those who go to extremes in declaring takfir of individuals or a general group of people. We consider all Muslim societies to be Muslim, and we consider Syrian society in general to be Muslim. We reject those who say that this society is an apostate one," he said.

"We will punish those who do this without knowledge or understanding."

Islamists reject U.S. role in talks

Islamist rebels fighting Assad's forces in Syria have rejected overtures from the United States to sit down and talk, a senior U.S. diplomat said on Wednesday.

The Syrian government said it was "reprehensible" that Washington was prepared to enter a dialogue with the Islamic Front, which comprises six major Islamist rebel groups including Nusra Front and which Damascus considers a terrorist organization.

The developments highlighted Washington's difficulties in engaging with the faction-ridden rebels in Syria's civil war.

With five weeks to go before UN peace talks convene in Geneva, it is unclear who will represent the opposition, and the clock is ticking towards a December 27 deadline set by UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi for both sides to name their delegations.

"The Islamic Front has refused to sit with us, without giving any reason," U.S. Syria envoy Robert Ford told Al Arabiya television, speaking in Arabic, a day after Secretary of State John Kerry said such talks might take place.

"We are ready to sit with them because we talk to all parties and political groups in Syria," Ford said.

The Islamic Front has overshadowed the more moderate Free Syrian Army, which is formally led by the Supreme Military Council (SMC) and backed by Western and Arab powers.

The Front has rejected the authority of the SMC, the military arm of the main political opposition in exile, and last week seized control of SMC weapons depots in northern Syria.

In a video statement given to Reuters by the SMC on Wednesday, Ford described the takeover as "an extremely negative development" and urged disparate rebel groups to work together.

"If there is not tight cooperation between the different armed groups that are fighting the regime, the regime is going to be successful in surviving," he said.

"It is extremely important that the Supreme Military Council be able to play its role of coordinating. If it cannot do that, I do not see how the armed opposition can be truly effective."

Kerry said on Tuesday a U.S. meeting with the Islamic Front was possible as part of efforts to broaden opposition representation at the Geneva peace talks, but the Front's commanders are wary of openly coordinating with Washington.

Any such public engagement with the United States could put the newly formed Islamic Front on a collision course with the powerful Al-Qaida-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried on the state news agency that dialogue with the Islamic Front contradicted U.S. and international commitments to combat terrorism, as well as "international pledges that terrorist organizations would not be given the chance to participate in the Geneva conference".

The long-delayed talks in Switzerland are meant to discuss a political transition to lead Syria out of a 33-month-old conflict in which well over 100,000 people have been killed.

The Islamic Front "agrees in principle, strategy and goals with the Nusra Front", the Syrian foreign ministry said, referring to another Al-Qaida-linked rebel group that the State Department last year listed as a terrorist organization.

Members of Islamist Syrian rebel group Nusra Front pose for a picture at a checkpoint separating area regime- and rebel-controlled areas December 17, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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