Al-Qa'ida leader calls on Syrian rebels to build anti-West state
Al-Qa'ida's high command staked its interest in the outcome of Syria's civil war as its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, called on jihadist fighters to build an anti-Western state after toppling President Bashar al-Assad.
In remarks that underline how al-Qa'ida now sees the Syrian conflict as its best political chance in years, Zawahiri warned rebel fighters not to do the West's work by replacing Mr Assad with a moderate, democratic government.
Instead, he called for the creation of an Islamic caliphate that would then wage all-out war with neighbouring Israel.
"America, its agents and allies want you to shed your blood and the blood of your children and women to bring down the criminal Ba'athist regime, and then set up a government loyal to them and to safeguard Israel's security," he said yesterday.
Zawahiri's comments, which raise the prospect of a three-sided war between secular moderates, Sunni extremists loyal to al-Qa'ida, and the Shia regime of Mr Assad, were made in an audio broadcast timed to mark the 65th anniversary of Israel's creation.
It comes amid mounting Western concern about how groups linked to al-Qa'ida factions are now dominant in the rebel frontlines, to which they bring better weapons and battlefield experience honed in Iraq. Their principal organisation is the Al-Nusra Front, which pledged allegiance to Zawahiri in April. As well as alarming secular rebel groups, who took up arms in the hope of achieving a multi-party democracy, the success of Nusra has shored up the remaining bedrock of support for Mr Assad, allowing him to portray himself as a champion against terrorism and fundamentalism.
While Zawahiri's message exhorted Syrians to "rise above sectarian affiliations", it also appealed directly to those same religious divisions, referring to the "criminal Alawite regime" of Mr Assad, whose faith is an offshoot of Shia Islam. Many fear that if his regime falls, his fellow Alawites will suffer reprisals at the hands of the Sunni Muslim majority, to which most of the rebels belong.
Zawahiri's declaration that he is paying close attention to events in Syria may sharpen divisions within the West over whether to arm the anti-Assad rebels, who are showing signs of being pushed on to the back foot by the regime.
Britain and France favour such a move, saying that arming only secular rebels would reduce the relative power of al-Qa'ida-linked factions. But other nations say that in the chaos of civil war, any such weapons inevitably risk falling into the hands of jihadist groups.
Zawahiri's speech came as Syrian forces, backed by Hezbollah fighters from neighbouring Lebanon, celebrated capturing the strategic town of Qusayr from rebel fighters after a two-week siege.Syrian forces claimed yesterday to have deliberately opened exit routes from Qusayr to allow rebels to escape, rather than forcing a fight to the death in areas still populated by civilians. About 1,000 wounded reportedly remain in the town.
Fighters were reported yesterday to have seized the only crossing point between Syria and Israel in the heavily militarised Golan Heights region. (© Daily Telegraph, London)