This morning I tweeted that Al-Zawahiri’s most recent message to the Syrian people was dated July last year. I’ve since been corrected. Yes, there was a message from Al-Zawahiri to the Syrian people dated “Rajab 1432 AH” (July 2011), but there’s also been a more recent one released a few days ago, dates “1433 AH” (2012).
I have listened to both. There’s nothing radically new, neither is there anything particularly creepy or sinister.
“We support you, do not accept outside help, unite & rely upon yourselves, maintain your independence so you can have your own voice post-revolution.” In both videos, Al-Zawahiri warns of US stealing this revolution and installing a pro-Western, Israel-friendly, puppet government.
The messages remind of similar ones from Alqaeda to the Egyptian, Libyan, and Yemeni revolution. I don’t know how far Alqaeda realizes the damage done to its founding ideas by the Tunisians & Egyptians, who freed the Arab imagination and showed that popular peaceful change was indeed possible.
Libya gave Alqaeda a rare chance, but the world moved quickly to preempt that opportunity. Syria is probably the last chance for Alqaeda to be relevant in the Arab Spring.
So if there’s nothing new, what’s the significance of this latest message? I have argued for months that if the world doesn’t come to the help of the Syrian people, then Syria will become a Jihadist magnet. The question is how much Alqaeda can do at this point – with little popular support and barely any on-the-ground assets or resources.
If Alqaeda’s entry into Iraq is any guide, they may try to send in a senior member to try to organize disparate armed groups into a fighting force, and imbue them with Jihadist tactics & ideology. With the FSA fragmented and lacking centralized command, Alqaeda can potentially lead a relatively large force of defected soldiers without having to bring in foreign fighters.
Does This Vindicate the Regime’s Narrative?
Assad loyalists will use the video as “proof” that the Syrian regime is fighting a Jihadist Salafi insurgency (or “armed gangs”). If anything, the videos actually argue against that.
When Alqaeda entered Iraq, it got busy instantly, building a core group under Al-Zarqawi as well as a wider network. Had Alqaeda any presence in Syria, Al-Zawahiri would have cited it & its operations. Instead, he apologetically explained why they aren’t helping in the first video, and gave a vague call for “unity” in the second.
The videos also show another problem Alqaeda has after Bin Laden. Al-Zawahiri is an uncharismatic speaker. I don’t know who Al-Zawahiri’s speech writer is, but he gave a dull and dry delivery (he tries hard in the second video, but it’s not that much better). The same words, had they been said by Bin Laden, would have done much more to inflame & incite.
In closing, let me repeat the same warning again.
If the world does not do something about Assad, then Syria will become a Jihadist magnet. The people can’t be blamed for accepting any helping hand after a year of massacres. Should Alqaeda decide to move in, its presence will probably be via a single commander or a small group that would seak to unite disparate defecting groups into a small but organized army.
The Syrian people need to beat them to it by forging an effective, unified, and independent FSA that is worthy of its name. The world must do what its can to avoid militarization and force Assad to deal, but if they can’t, they must facilitate & support the FSA, or stand by and watch as Syria becomes the newest recruitment & training ground for Jihadists.