16 February 2012

Syria and the reluctant alliance between al-Qaeda and the West

Al-Qaeda and Western nations agreeing on a policy of critical importance may seem strange, yet such is the case with Syria. Ayman al-Zawahiri, head of al-Qaeda, has publicly thrown his organization’s support behind the Syrian opposition. Al-Zawahiri called on Muslim fighters from Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to go to Syria and join a jihad against Bashar al-Assad’s “pernicious, cancerous regime.” “Continue your revolt and anger, don't accept anything else apart from independent, respectful government,” was the al-Qaeda leader's message to the Syrians.

Neither the West nor the Syrian opposition welcomed the message. After all, Assad has long smeared the opposition by claiming they were tools of terrorist and foreign influences, while the protesters have insisted their goal is a secular democracy, quite antithetical to the goals of al-Qaeda.

Nonetheless, the call is being answered. According to Iraq's deputy interior minister, Adnan al-Assadi, jihadists are moving from Iraq to Syria and arms are also being sent across the border. "In the past, Syrians were fighting in Iraq," he said, "and now they are fighting in Syria." A pair of recent suicide car bombings that killed 28 people in Aleppo had the mark of al-Qaeda. So, the Syrian rebels, and the West, have an ally in al-Qaeda whether they want it or not.

Other Islamic groups have also voiced their support for the opposition, including Jordan’s increasingly powerful Muslim Brotherhood, who said it was an Islamic duty to support Syria’s rebel army.

The West has had strange allies in the past, most notably perhaps the collaboration with the Soviet Union to defeat the Nazis. An alliance with al-Zawahiri is hardly more unsavory than an alliance with Joseph Stalin. Not that there will be comradely meetings between the parties as there were during WWII. Al-Zawahiri has made that clear, warning the Syrians against dependence on the West.

The co-operation with the Soviets worked out well for the allies in WWII—the Soviets inflicted almost ninety per cent of the casualties suffered by the Germans. However, the East Europeans, who suffered for decades under Communism, may have been less grateful for the Soviet presence. We might expect the same result here. The Islamists will be fierce allies in the fight to overthrow Assad, but when the job is done Syrian democrats will still wish they hadn't come.

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