By Lee Keath and Maamoun Youssef
CAIRO — Al-Qaida’s central leadership broke with one of its most powerful branch commanders in an apparent attempt to stem the deadly infighting that has erupted in Syria among the militant Islamic factions trying to bring down President Bashar Assad.
More broadly, the announcement Monday appeared to be a move by al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri to reassert the terror network’s prominence in the jihad movement across the Middle East amid the mushrooming of extremist groups during the upheaval of the past three years.
The dispute is between al-Qaida’s central leadership and a faction known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of al-Qaida’s branch in Iraq, formed the Islamic State last spring to expand his operations into neighboring Syria, defying direct orders by al-Zawahri not to do so. Al-Zawahri named a different group, the Nusra Front, as al-Qaida’s branch in Syria.
Now, the break is likely to spark a competition for resources and fighters between the two sides in what has become a civil war within a civil war. The test for al-Zawahri’s influence will be whether his decision leads fighters to quit the Islamic State.
In Washington, which has viewed the increasing influence of Islamic extremism in Syria’s rebel movement with unease, State Department spokesman Jen Psaki noted that both the Islamic State and the Nusra Front are considered terrorist organizations.
As for al-Qaida’s attempt to distance itself from the Islamic State, she said: “There’s no way for me to evaluate what it will mean in the months ahead.”
In a conflict that has seen atrocities by all sides, the Islamic State has been particularly vicious.
It is believed to be dominated by thousands of non-Syrian jihadi fighters, and is seen by others in the rebellion as more concerned with venting sectarian hatreds and creating a transnational Islamic caliphate than with toppling Assad.
Since its creation, it has taken over swaths of territory in Syria, often imposing severe Shariah law penalties.
Its fighters have beheaded captured government fighters, carried out some of the deadliest massacres against pro-Assad minorities and kidnapped anti-Assad activists, journalists and civilians seen as critical of its rule.
It has increasingly clashed with other factions, particularly an umbrella group of Syrian rebels called the Islamic Front, which accuses it of trying to hijack the campaign to oust Assad. Even the group’s name, Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, was seen as a declaration that the group was the only real Islamic movement in the country.
Those frictions erupted into outright warfare in January. Since Jan. 3, more than 1,700 people have been killed in fighting between Islamic State and other factions, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
At the same time, al-Baghdadi has brought his group back to the forefront in his homeland Iraq. The past month, his fighters rose up and virtually took over main cities in Iraq’s western Anbar province. That has made al-Baghdadi a powerful force in the jihadi movement.