BEIRUT — Al-Qaida's deputy leader gave an apparent endorsement for its Syria branch to split from the terror network, saying in a newly released message that the Nusra Front should do whatever it takes to preserve the jihadi movement in the war-torn country.
Nusra Front leaders have been debating whether to leave al-Qaida, hoping the step would undermine talks between the United States and Russia over a military accord that would target Nusra and the Islamic State group in Syria.
Even if the group does announce a formal split, however, its militant ideology is unlikely to change. The U.S. has said it considers Nusra to be al-Qaida in its "fundamental nature."
In the recording that emerged Thursday, Ahmed Hassan Abu el-Kheir — the deputy of al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri's deputy— said the organization instructs "the leadership of the Nusra Front to go ahead with what protects the interests of Islam and Muslims and what protects jihad" in Syria.
He also urged the Nusra Front to unite with other factions against "Crusaders" and form a good "Islamic government."
"We will be the first to support it," Abu el-Kheir said in his six-minute recording.
The message also included a brief comment from al-Zawahri, saying, "The brotherhood of Islam is stronger than any organizational links that change and go away." It was not clear when he made those recorded comments.
Soon after the recorded message, an announcement appeared on social media accounts connected to Nusra saying its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, would soon make a statement. The announcement had a picture of al-Golani, the first time the Syrian militant's face has been shown.
The Nusra Front's fighters have been among the strongest in battling the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his allies like Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas. It often fights alongside other rebel factions, which in turn have been hit by Russian airstrikes ostensibly targeting militants.
By leaving al-Qaida, Nusra would be able to ally even more closely with other rebels, proponents of the move within the group say — in turn putting pressure on the U.S. not to support strikes on its ranks.