Al-Qaida's deputy leader is urging the network's Syria branch to do what it takes to preserve jihad in the war-torn country, an apparent endorsement of Nusra Front's plans to split from the parent organization.

Senior Nusra Front figures have been discussing plans to dissociate from al-Qaida. The discussions come amid calls from Russia to target the group, which collaborates with other rebel groups, including those backed by the U.S.

In a six-minute recording Thursday, Ahmed Hassan Abu el-Kheir — currently Ayman al-Zawahri's deputy — says al-Qaida 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."