Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri (AP)
The leader of Al-Qaeda urged his followers and all militants in Syria to unite ranks and prepare for protracted jihad, or holy war, in a recording released Sunday night.
Ayman al-Zawahri told the militants to remain steadfast and change tactics in order to wage guerrilla war. His remarks came in an audio message released through Al-Qaeda's media arm, As-Sahab.
Al-Zawahri said the "international satanic alliance" of state powers would never accept Islam's rule in Syria. He said the war isn't an exclusively nationalist Syrian cause but a campaign by the entire Muslim nation that seeks to establish divine rule.
Al-Qaeda's Syria branch — formerly the Nusra Front but now known as the Fatah al-Sham Front — has come under increasing attack from the U.S.-led coalition in recent months and some of its most senior leaders have been killed in airstrikes.
Meanwhile, authorities began a sixth round of evacuations on Monday for civilians and fighters from the opposition-held neighborhood of al-Waer in Homs, Syria's third largest city, activists and Syrian state media reported.
Government forces have besieged the neighborhood since 2013, according to the Washington-based monitoring group Siege Watch. Rebels, opposition activists and their families agreed to vacate the district in an agreement signed in March in exchange for the end of hostilities. The government will retake control of the neighborhood after the last of twelve rounds of evacuations are complete, in an expected three to four weeks, according to local media activist Osama Abou Zeid.
He said about 16,000 people are expected to leave the neighborhood, instead of reconciling themselves with the government's notorious security services. Siege Watch estimates there have been 60,000 people trapped under the siege.
An estimated 1,800 people, including some 500 fighters, left on Monday, said Abou Zeid. They are being taken to Jarablus, a town on the Turkish border that is under the control of Turkish and Syrian opposition forces.
Areas all over Syria have surrendered to the government in exchange for relief from its sieges. Rebels and dissidents are offered exile to rebel-held areas in northern Syria, if they do not want to reconcile with the authorities. Tens of thousands have accepted to leave from areas around Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo, Syria's largest city. Another 8,000 people have left two pro-government towns in northern Syria, besieged by rebels, in recent weeks.
Critics say the population transfers are redrawing Syria's map along sectarian and political lines.