Members of al-Qaida's Nusra Front [File].
(photo credit: REUTERS)
BEIRUT - The leader of al-Qaida's Syria wing Nusra Front said his group was aiming to capture Damascus and the fall of Syrian President Bashar Assad would happen quickly.
Nusra Front has made gains in northwestern Syria alongside other insurgents in recent weeks, seizing the city of Idlib in March and the town of Jisr al-Shughour town last month, bringing them closer to the government-held coastline.
It is the most powerful faction in Syria opposing both Assad and Islamic State, an offshoot of al-Qaida. Both have been hit by US-led air strikes.
"We will continue our focus on Damascus and on toppling this regime," Abu Mohamad al-Golani told news channel Al Jazeera in a rare interview aired on Wednesday. "I assure you, Assad's fall won't take a long time."
He also said Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah
, which backs Assad, knew its fate was linked to the Syrian leader and its efforts to save him were in vain
It was not clear where the interview took place and Golani's face was not shown. He sat on an ornate chair opposite the interviewer, his back to the camera.
He said to be safe, members of Syria's Alawite minority sect should renounce Assad and change their beliefs.
"If they drop weapons, disavow Assad, do not send their men to fight for him and return to Islam, then they are our brothers," he said. Assad is a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
Golani, who said his group got no foreign funding, wore a checked shirt and a black scarf covering his head and shoulders. A black flag used by the group was placed on the table between him and the interviewer.
Golani added that Alawites were part of a sect that had "moved outside the religion of God and of Islam." He said Nusra Front, who are Sunni Muslims, were not at war with Christians.
He also condemned the Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah, which backs Assad. He said Hezbollah knew its fate was linked to the Syrian leader and its efforts to save him were in vain.
Nusra Front is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and has been sanctioned by the UN Security Council. But it is more powerful than the mainstream groups favored by the United States and its Arab allies in the fight against both Islamic State and Assad's government.
US-led forces have carried out air strikes that have hit Nusra Front targets, saying they were targeting a specific al-Qaida-linked faction called "Khorasan Group".
Golani said there was no such thing as Khorasan Group in Syria. "We only heard about this name when the Americans said it," Golani said.
Apart from its recent battlefield gains in the northwest, Nusra Front is a major force in fighting against government forces and allied militia around the northern city of Aleppo.
It is also fighting in southern Syria, where the army and allied militia have begun a major offensive. Its fighters have frequently clashed with Islamic State in a number of locations.