BEIRUT—The leader of al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate vowed on Sunday that his group would “use all possible means” to fight back against air strikes by the United States-led coalition and warned that the conflict would reach Western countries joining the alliance.
The US views the affiliate, known as the Nusra Front, as a terrorist group, but Syrian rebels have long seen it as a potent ally against both the Islamic State extremist group—which is the main target of the coalition—and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
Syrian rebels, activists and analysts have warned that targeting the Nusra Front will inject more chaos into the Syrian conflict and indirectly help Assad by striking one of his main adversaries.
The US insists it wants Assad to step down, but is not targeting his forces, which are best placed to benefit from the air strikes.
In a 25-minute audio recording, Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani portrayed the US-led coalition as a “Crusader alliance” against Sunni Muslims and vowed to fight back.
“We will use all that we have to defend the people of Syria…from the Crusader alliance,” al-Golani said.
“And we will use all possible means to achieve this end,” he said, without offering more details.
He went on to warn Western countries against taking part in the alliance in words that echoed those of the late founder of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden.
“This is what will cause the battle to be transported to the hearts of your own homes; because Muslims will not stand idly by and watch Muslims be bombed and killed in their countries, while you are safe on your countries. The price of war will not be paid by your leaders alone. You will pay the biggest price,” he said.
The recording appeared genuine and corresponded with the Associated Press reporting.
The US and five Arab allies launched an air campaign against IS fighters in Syria on Tuesday with the aim of ultimately crushing the extremist group, which has created a proto-state spanning the Syria-Iraq border.
The US has been carrying out air strikes against the group in neighboring Iraq since August.
Some of the initial strikes targeted the Nusra Front, hitting several of its facilities and killing dozens of its fighters.
Washington said it was trying to take out an al-Qaeda cell known as the Khorasan Group that was actively plotting attacks against Americans and Western interests.
Syrian rebels have expressed anger at the coalition air strikes, both because they have targeted the Nusra Front—which they see as an ally—and because they are not hitting pro-government forces, which are the best placed to benefit from any rolling back of the IS group.
The Nusra Front’s ultimate goal is to impose Islamic law in Syria. But, unlike the IS group, it has fought alongside other rebel groups, seeing the overthrow of Assad as its first priority.
Al-Golani warned the air strikes would weaken the rebels.
“Those of our men who were targeted in the shelling…the effect of their loss will be witnessed by the entire conflict, not just on the [Nusra] Front alone.”
The Nusra Front leader also warned other rebel groups not to coordinate with the US-led alliance. Washington has promised to arm and train more Syrian rebels to help fight the IS group.
The al-Golani speech came hours after the group’s spokesman warned that Muslims would attack countries taking part in the coalition air raids.