By Kamran Bokhari
In an eight-minute video clip titled "Onward, Lions of Syria" disseminated on the Internet Feb. 12, al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri expressed al Qaeda's support for the popular unrest in Syria. In it, al-Zawahiri urged Muslims in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan to aid the Syrian rebels battling Damascus. The statement comes just days after a McClatchy report quoted unnamed American intelligence officials as saying that the Iraqi node of the global jihadist network carried out two attacks against Syrian intelligence facilities in Damascus, while Iraqi Deputy Interior Minister Adnan al-Assadi said in a recent interview with AFP that Iraqi jihadists were moving fighters and weapons into neighboring Syria.
Al Qaeda's long-term goal has been to oust Arab governments to facilitate the return of a transnational caliphate. Its tactics have involved mainly terrorism intended to cause U.S. intervention in the region. Al Qaeda has hoped such interventions would in turn incite popular uprisings that would bring down the Arab regimes, opening the way for the jihadists to eventually take power. But the jihadist network's efforts have failed and they have remained a marginal player in the Arab world. By addressing Syria, al Qaeda hopes to tap into the past year of Arab unrest, a movement in which it played little to no part.
The region's regimes have been on the defensive due to the rise of political Islamism, growing public disillusionment and the sectarian Sunni-Shiite split, though foreign military intervention has been required to actually topple them, as we saw in Libya. Growing uncertainty in the region and the gradual weakening of these regimes gives jihadists an opportunity to reassert their relevance. Al-Zawahiri's statement, however, represents a continuation of the central leadership's inability to do more than issue taped statements from its Pakistani hideouts, much less engage in strategic planning.