The Islamic State group yesterday released a new message purportedly from its reclusive leader, claiming that his self-styled "caliphate" is doing well and criticising the recently announced Saudi-led Islamic military coalition against terrorism.
In the 24-minute audio, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi said airstrikes by the international coalition only increased Isil's resolve. The message was al-Baghdadi's first since May and comes amid battlefield setbacks assailing Isil.
Meanwhile, a US-backed coalition of rebels in Syria - including Syrian Kurdish, Arab and Christian groups - captured a major dam on the Euphrates River from Isil as part of the coalition's march on Isil-held areas in northern Syria. The coalition, known as Syria Democratic Forces, and dominated by the main Kurdish militia in Syria known as YPG, or People's Protection Units, has become a main force in fighting Isil.
Isil has come under pressure in Syria and Iraq. It lost the town of Sinjar in Iraq last month and areas across the border in Syria at the same time. Iraqi government troops are also advancing in the Islamic State-held city of Ramadi, the provincial capital of the sprawling Anbar province, Iraq's Sunni heartland.
Air strikes by the US-led coalition and Russia have also destroyed Syrian oil facilities and killed several Isil leaders in recent weeks.
"It is unprecedented in the history of our Ummah (Islamic nation) that all the world came against it in one battle, as it is happening today. It is the battle of all the disbelievers against all the Muslims," al-Baghdadi said.
He said the US-led alliance does "not scare us... nor do they scatter our resolve because we are the victors in any event."
Al-Baghdadi also taunted the United States for not putting boots on the ground.
"They do not dare to come, because their hearts are full of fear from the mujahideen," or holy warriors, he said.
"America and its allies dream of destroying the caliphate through their proxies and henchmen, and whenever an alliance fails or a tail is cut, they hasten to establish another, until they recently declared the Salouli [Saudi] alliance that was falsely called Islamic," al-Baghdadi added.
If the Saudi-led alliance was truly Islamic, then it would fight the Syrian army and its Russian "masters," as well as Shiites and Jews, al-Baghdadi said.
In mid-December, Saudi Arabia announced the new, 34-member alliance against terrorism, to be based in the kingdom's capital, Riyadh.
But Shiite powerhouse Iran is not part of the new coalition; neither are Iraq and Syria, whose forces are battling to regain ground from the Islamic State group and whose governments are allied with Tehran.
In the audio, al-Baghdadi also warned nations taking part in the war against Isil by saying: "We promise you, God permitting, that whoever participates in the war against the Islamic State will pay the price dearly."
He threatened Israel by saying, "we haven't forgotten you" and "we are getting closer to you" every day.
To Israeli Jews, he said that they "will hide behind trees and stones" from Isil.
He also urged Muslims world over to join the Isil fight, saying it was their Islamic duty to rise up everywhere.
The authenticity of the audio could not be independently confirmed but it was posted on Isil-affiliated websites and Twitter as past Isil messages. Also, it was produced by the al-Furqan Media Foundation, Isil's media arm.
Elsewhere in Syria yesterday, a UN-sponsored deal to evacuate more than 2,000 Isil fighters and other militants from rebel-held parts of south Damascus has been delayed, a body that monitors the war said yesterday, a day after a rebel leader was killed.
Buses were due to transport the fighters to Raqqa, in northern Syria. But the deal fell through after the Jaysh al Islam rebel group's leader Zahran Alloush, through whose territory the convoy had been granted safe passage, was killed in an air strike on Friday, the broadcaster said.
The arrangement was the first of its kind between the Syrian authorities and Isil. It would have marked a significant show of strength by the government of president Bashar al-Assad, increasing its chances of reasserting control over a strategic area near the centre of the capital.
The evacuation had been expected to take place yesterday, but was delayed as there was now no secure territory for militants to pass through.
A years-long government siege of parts of Damascus controlled by a patchwork of rebel groups - of which Jaysh al Islam is the largest - has impeded the flow of food and humanitarian aid, starving many people to death in what Amnesty International has described as a war crime.
The UN and foreign governments have stepped up efforts to broker local ceasefires and safe-passage agreements towards a wider goal of ending Syria's civil war, in which more than 250,000 people have been killed in nearly five years of fighting.
On December 18, the UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution endorsing an international road map for a Syrian peace process, a rare show of consensus among major powers.
In contrast to other non- Jihadist rebels, Isil has been totally opposed to any deal with the Assad government.
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