Syria: Qaeda support sparks fear
13 February 2012, 17:06
Beirut - The al-Qaeda leader's call for the ouster of Syria's
"pernicious, cancerous regime" is raising fears that Islamic extremists
will try to exploit an uprising against President Bashar Assad that
began with peaceful calls for democratic change but is morphing into a
bloody, armed insurgency.
The regime has long blamed terrorists
for the 11-month-old revolt, and al-Qaeda's endorsement creates new
difficulties for the US, its Western allies and Arab states trying to
figure out a way to help force Assad from power.
On Sunday, the
22-nation Arab League called for the UN Security Council to create a
joint peacekeeping force for Syria, but Damascus rejected it
In an eight-minute video message released late on
Saturday, al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri called on Muslims to support
"Wounded Syria is still bleeding day after day,
and the butcher [Bashar Assad] isn't deterred and doesn't stop," said
al-Zawahri, who took over al-Qaeda after Osama bin Laden was killed by
US special forces last May.
"However, the resistance of our people in Syria is escalating and growing despite all the pains, sacrifices and blood."
United Nations estimates more than 5 400 people have been killed in
Syria since the uprising began in March. But that figure is from
January, when the UN stopped counting because the chaos in the country
has made it all but impossible to check the figures.
of the anti-government protests sweeping the country remain peaceful,
the uprising as a whole has become more violent in recent months as
frustrated demonstrators and army defectors take up arms to protect
themselves from the steady military assault.
number of army defectors known as the Free Syrian Army have launched
attacks, killing soldiers and security forces.
Syria now has
become one of the deadliest conflicts of the Arab Spring, and many fear
the country of 22 million at the heart of the Arab world is on the verge
of a civil war that could engulf the region.
In a grave
escalation of the violence, a string of suicide attacks have killed
dozens of people since late December. The latest, twin bombings in the
major northern city of Aleppo, killed at least 28 people on Friday, the
Around 70 people were killed in earlier attacks
in the capital, Damascus, on December 23 and January 6. All the blasts
struck security targets.
taken responsibility for the attacks, but the regime said they have the
hallmarks of al-Qaeda and immediately blamed the global terror group.
statement by al-Zawahri appears to bolster Assad's accusations, but the
Syrian opposition and the Free Syrian Army reject the government's
They accuse forces loyal to the regime of
setting off the blasts to smear the opposition, terrify people into
submission and exploit fears of chaos and sectarian warfare.
many Syrians, the uncertainty over the future is cause for alarm in a
country that has watched neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq descend into
bloody wars over the years.
Syria is a fragile jigsaw puzzle of
Middle Eastern backgrounds including Sunnis, Shi'ites, Alawites,
Christians, Kurds, Druse, Circassians, Armenians and more.
Friday's bombings in Aleppo, Zuheir al-Atasi, a member of the opposition
Syrian National Council, accused the government of staging the attacks.
Country sealed off
the heavy explosions, members of the opposition went to the site to
film it. There were ambulances but no corpses. We documented that on
tape," he said in Vienna during a gathering of Syrian opposition groups.
"When the Syrian National TV arrived they started to bring out corpses.
Once again we witnessed a theatre play."
There is virtually no
way to determine who was behind the attacks or to perform an independent
investigation in Syria, one of the most authoritarian states in the
Assad has largely sealed off the country and
prevented reporters from moving freely. The Arab League sent a
now-suspended observer mission into the country to provide an outside
view, but government minders accompanied the team.
director of the Brookings Doha Centre, a think tank in the Qatari
capital, said prolonged chaos in Syria could open the door to extremist
forces like al-Qaeda.
"The longer this goes on, we may get a more
permissive environment in Syria for these kinds of characters as the
Syrian people get more and more desperate," he said. "I don't think they
would be welcomed in Syria but there may be desperate people in Syria
who are looking for any kind of help."
Still, Shaikh is not
convinced that Saturday's al-Qaeda statement was anything more than the
terrorist group trying to reassert its influence in the Middle East, now
that the Arab Spring uprisings have, in many ways, pushed it to the
"Al-Zawahri's pronouncement, to me, is a propaganda effort that says, 'We're alive and well in the Mideast'," he said.
acknowledged that the suggestion that al-Qaeda could become involved in
the uprising could have a "chilling effect" on efforts by the West to
stem the bloodshed.
"Certainly the US policymakers are advised by
their last experience and their last experience is Iraq. So yes, I
presume there would be alarm and hesitation in getting further
involved," he said.
In Saturday's internet posting, al-Zawahri
asked Muslims in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to join the uprising
against Assad's regime, saying Syrian rebels must not rely on the West.
depend on the West and Turkey, which had deals, mutual understanding
and sharing with this regime for decades and only began to abandon it
after they saw it faltering," he said. "Instead, depend on Allah alone
and then on your sacrifices, resistance, and steadfastness."
He urged Syrians to oppose help from the Arab League and "its corrupt agent governments".
later, a Sunni sheik in Iraq's northern Kurdish region said a group of
clerics in the area is calling for a Muslim jihad, or holy war, against
"Jihad is the duty of every Muslim against the
Assad regime," said Sheik Abdul-Rahman Abdul-Karim Barzanji, describing
the edict issued by the Union of the Scholars of Islam in Kurdistan.
"Any support from any Muslim or country is forbidden."
Syria has a
large population of Kurds, who have mostly stayed on the sidelines of
the uprising since Assad's regime began giving them long-denied
citizenship as a gesture to win support.
The Arab League has been at the forefront of regional efforts to end the bloodshed in Syria.
Sunday, the Arab League called for the UN Security Council to create a
joint peacekeeping force for Syria. The resolution adopted by the League
also demanded that Syrian regime forces lift the siege on
neighbourhoods and villages and pull troops and their heavy weapons back
to their barracks.
The central city of Homs has seen some of the
worst violence of the uprising, and activists said regime forces were
shelling rebellious neighbourhoods on Sunday. Hundreds are believed to
have been killed since the latest assault in Homs began more than a week
The Arab League resolution also calls on Syrian opposition
groups to unite ahead of a February 24 meeting of the "Friends of Syria"
group, which includes the United States, its European allies and Arab
nations working to end the conflict.
State of hysteria
ambassador to Egypt, Ahmed Youssef, swiftly rejected the resolution,
saying it showed the collective Arab will has been "hijacked" by states
led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are opposed to Assad's regime.
ambassador to the Arab League, Ahmed Youssef, was quoted in Syria's
state media as saying that Qatar and Saudi Arabia were "living in a
state of hysteria after their last failure at the UN Security Council to
call for outside interference in Syria's affairs and impose sanctions
on the Syrian people".
The regime's crackdown has left it almost
completely isolated internationally, except for key support from Russia
and China, which delivered a double veto to block a UN resolution
calling on Assad to leave power.
Moscow's stance is motivated in
part by its strategic and defence ties, including weapons sales, with
Syria. Russia also rejects what it sees as a world order dominated by
the US. Last month, Russia reportedly signed a $550m deal to sell combat
jets to Syria.
The veto prompted Western and Arab countries to
consider forming a coalition to help Syria's opposition, though so far
there is no sign they intend to give direct aid to the Free Syrian Army.
Sunday, President Barack Obama's chief of staff, Jacob Lew, said it's
only a matter of time before Assad's government collapses.
Speaking to Fox News Sunday, Lew said: "There is no question that this regime will come to an end. The only question is when."
Get the latest news by following us on Twitter