As Syria spirals toward a full-blown civil war that could engulf the Middle East, al Qaeda is making a push to claim a role in the 11-month uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime. In a new video, Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of the terrorist network, is calling on Muslims to support Syrian rebels in their quest to topple Assad's "pernicious, cancerous regime." The Syrian government has repeatedly claimed that its military strikes on civilian areas were aimed at terrorists, and specifically blamed al Qaeda for two suicide bombings that killed at least 28 people in the northern city of Aleppo last week. Could al Qaeda succeed in exploiting Syria's turmoil to increase its influence in the region?
Yes. Al Qaeda is making headway in Syria: The Syrian opposition hasn't shown much affinity for jihad, say Tim Lister and Paul Cruickshank at CNN, but the worsening violence might give Zawahiri a golden opportunity to "graft al Qaeda" onto the uprising. "Security vacuums and growing radicalism brought on by economic collapse" have helped Islamists "gain a foothold — and in some instances, safe havens — across the Arab world," including in Zawahiri's native Egypt. Look for al Qaeda to try and repeat that pattern as Syria is ravaged by internal strife.
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But Syrians want nothing to do with al Qaeda: The chaos in Syria and "the lure of jihad against a brutal secular regime will surely attract extremists," says Robert Grenier at Al Jazeera, but their influence will be limited. Suicide bombs might ratchet up the level of violence, but they won't win al Qaeda political power or even renewed popularity. "Syrians have enough means and motives of their own to bring down the Assad regime, and they are not inclined to see their national quest" hijacked by terrorists.
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And Zawahiri doesn't really want the uprising to succeed: By targeting the regime, jihadists are trying to "thwart a negotiated settlement," says analyst Kamran Bokhari at Stratfor, and force Assad "to crack down even harder on opponents (both armed and unarmed)." Al Qaeda's goal is to create a cycle of violence that causes "a meltdown of the Syrian state and the rise of multiple armed factions." Such chaos would give al Qaeda a new base on the edge of Israel and the Palestinian territories — "the best theater a jihadist could ask for."
"Jihadist opportunities in Syria"