Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri reiterated his call for jihad against the Syrian dictatorship in a message posted on the Internet yesterday. The conflict in Syria pits the Assad regime, Iran and Hezbollah against the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda and the Arab states. Non-Islamist Syrians desiring genuine democracy, including the Christian minority, are caught in-between.
Zawahiri tells Muslims to support the uprising “with all that he can, with his life, money, opinion, as well as information.” The message comes after 25 were killed and 175 were wounded in two suicide bombings in Aleppo of security service buildings. The attacks are believed to have been directly ordered by Ayman al-Zawahiri and carried out by Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq.
He is especially concerned about how foreign powers will influence the Syrian opposition as it looks for outside help.
“Our people in Syria, don’t rely on the West or the United States or Arab governments and Turkey,” Zawahiri says.
His video was released on the same day that the Arab League asked the United Nations to send a peacekeeping force into Syria and agreed to “materially” support the opposition, likely paving the way for military assistance to the Free Syria Army that is fighting the regime’s forces.
The Muslim Brotherhood, unlike Al-Qaeda, is happy to accept foreign military intervention if it will lead to victory. Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, the top Brotherhood cleric, declared that it is permissible for Muslims to welcome U.N.-backed intervention in Syria if the Arab states are unable to stop the violence.
Al-Qaeda has had an on-again, off-again relationship with the Assad regime. Syria has imprisoned members of Al-Qaeda, as the terrorist group is ideologically committed to replacing the regime with Islamist rule. Assad has also helped Al-Qaeda when their interests have aligned, particularly in Iraq and Lebanon. Relations between Iraq and Syria hit the breaking point in 2009 when the Iraqis released evidence that the Assad regime was backing Al-Qaeda and other terrorists carrying out attacks in Iraq. The relationship has healed since then as Iranian influence over Iraq has grown.
The Iraqi Deputy Interior Minister says that terrorists are crossing the border into Syria and shipping arms to the opposition fighting Assad. The price of a Kalashnikov assault rifle has increased from $100-200 to $1000-$1500 because of the rise in demand, he claims. However, the Iraqi government is backing Assad and could just be trying to substantiate the dictatorship’s claims that it is only fighting “armed gangs” and terrorists.
Since coming to power in 2000, Bashar Assad’s strategy has been to portray his regime as the only thing stopping an Islamist takeover. Secular democratic voices are silenced while the jihadist rhetoric of Islamists is often allowed. The regime recently released a top Al-Qaeda prisoner, Abu Musab al-Suri, who used to lead the terrorist group’s operations in Europe. He oversaw the 2005 bombings in London and was involved in the 2004 bombings in Madrid.
Al-Suri was captured in Pakistan in 2005 and the U.S. transferred him to Syria the next year. He and his top aide are now free. The regime did this in order to reinforce the Islamists-or-us narrative and to remind the West that it risks losing all counter-terrorism cooperation in the future. Zawahiri’s video actually helps the Assad regime more than it hurts it.
There are many secular Syrians who don’t want Assad or the Islamists in power, like Kamal al-Labwani who argues for an Islamic “reformation” to bring the region into modernity. Unfortunately for them, the Islamists play a big role in the opposition and their power will expand as neighboring countries get involved.
The secularists regularly complain that the Syrian National Council, the umbrella opposition body, has excessive Islamist influence. Its representatives even met with Qaradawi in Qatar. The current leader of the SNC, Burhan Ghalioun, is a secularist and an ally of the West but he won’t lead the organization forever. His likely successor is Louay Safi, an individual very involved with the Muslim Brotherhood in the U.S.
In November, the Free Syria Army met with Abdelhakim Belhaj, a militia leader with past ties to Al-Qaeda as the former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. There are reports that 600 Libyan fighters were sent to Syria to help the opposition. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Arab steps are signaling their intent to more substantively help the opposition. Their influence will bolster the Islamists.
For now at least, the U.S. seems determined to let these other countries take the lead in supporting the Syrian opposition. The same thing was done in Libya. Qatar, a U.S. “ally,” took on an important role in ousting Muammar Qaddafi’s regime and then used the opportunity to help the Islamists. To this day, a struggle is underway in Libya between secularists and Islamists backed by Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Assad regime is a major sponsor of terrorism, is Iran’s closest ally and it played a destructive role in Iraq that contributed to the deaths of many American soldiers. There are potential allies within the Syrian opposition but Islamist influence is strong and increasing. The West is struck between a rock and a hard place.
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