In his first message since assuming leadership of al-Qaeda after Osama bin Laden's death, Ayman al-Zawahri has thrown his support behind what may seem like an unlikely cause: the pro-democracy movement in Syria. In the seven-minute video first posted to jihadist websites, al-Zawahri praises the "free people of Syria and its mujahideen" for trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom he calls a "leader of criminal gangs" and "America's partner in the war on Islam," and expresses regret that he can't be on the ground with them. But he cautions Syrian protesters not to ally themselves "with the colonialist powers of the world" like the U.S,. which he claims is trying to replace Assad with someone sympathetic to Israel. "Today Washington seeks to put in the place of Assad [someone] who loyally protected the Zionist borders, another regime against your revolution and jihad," he declares.
This isn't the first time al-Qaeda officials have heaped praise on the Arab Spring. In early June, shortly before his promotion, Zawahri posted another video in which he again expressed solidarity with the Mideast protest movements. That followed a videotaped message from bin Laden, released soon after his death, in which the al-Qaeda leader lauded the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions for "liberating" Muslim countries.
Why is al-Qaeda vociferously supporting the very movements that President Obama believes repudiate al-Qaeda's ideology? Essentially, Zawahri hopes the protesters will overthrow their respective regimes, create Islamic states, and join the fight against America and Israel (notice, for example, how Zawahri refers to Syrian activists as "mujahideen"). Shortly after the Egyptian uprising erupted, The Washington Post explains, Zawahri tried to link the movement to al-Qaeda's goal of restoring the Islamic caliphate. And in al-Qaeda's eyes, autocratic and corrupt leaders like Assad aren't capable of carrying out that vision (it's worth noting that al-Qaeda is a Sunni group, and Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect of Islam). In his most recent video, Zawahri argues that the Syrian leader betrayed the Arabs with his "abandonment" of the Golan Heights, which was occupied by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and says has since served as a tool of the U.S. and Israel. Still, the Post thinks Zawahri's message is unlikely to gain a lot of traction in Syria. "Al-Qaeda has struggled to adapt to epic changes underway in the Middle East, as Arab populations have ignored the terrorist group's recipe for violent jihad in favor of peaceful protests," the paper writes. Indeed, the Syrian protest movement's Local Coordination Committees haven't said a word about Zawahri's address today. Instead, they're focusing on the clashes between security forces and demonstrators across the country.
A portion of Zawahri's message has been posted to YouTube:
Update: In interviews with The Guardian, Syrian activists are rejecting Zawahri's message. "I don't think a single Syrian would welcome this statement," lawer and human rights activist Razan Zeitouneh says. "Al-Qaeda is trying to use our revolution to get back into the light after the peaceful Arab uprisings took attention away." Another activist adds, "Al-Qaeda has long been of no interest to Syrians and the statement comes too late in the day even if it had any weight." Activists warn, however, that the Syrian regime could try to use Zawahri's address to "portray the protesters as armed Islamists and the uprising as a foreign conspiracy."