Beirut: The Al Qaida leader's call for the ouster of Syria's "pernicious, cancerous regime" is raising fears that Islamic extremists will try to exploit an uprising against President Bashar Assad that began with peaceful calls for democratic change but is morphing into a bloody, armed insurgency.
The regime has long blamed terrorists for the 11-month-old revolt, and Al Qaida's endorsement creates new difficulties for the US, its Western allies and Arab states trying to figure out a way to help force Assad from power. On Sunday, the 22-nation Arab League called for the UN Security Council to create a joint peacekeeping force for Syria, but Damascus rejected it immediately.
In an eight-minute video message released late Saturday, Al Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri called on Muslims to support Syrian rebels.
"Wounded Syria is still bleeding day after day, and the butcher (Bashar Assad) isn't deterred and doesn't stop," said al-Zawahri, who took over Al Qaida after Osama bin Laden was killed by US special forces last May. "However, the resistance of our people in Syria is escalating and growing despite all the pains, sacrifices and blood."
The United Nations estimates more than 5,400 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising began in March. But that figure is from January, when the UN stopped counting because the chaos in the country has made it all but impossible to check the figures.
While many of the anti-government protests sweeping the country remain peaceful, the uprising as a whole has become more violent in recent months as frustrated demonstrators and army defectors take up arms to protect themselves from the steady military assault. An increasing number of army defectors known as the Free Syrian Army have launched attacks, killing soldiers and security forces.
Syria now has become one of the deadliest conflicts of the Arab Spring, and many fear the country of 22 million at the heart of the Arab world is on the verge of a civil war that could engulf the region.
In a grave escalation of the violence, a string of suicide attacks have killed dozens of people since late December. The latest, twin bombings in the major northern city of Aleppo, killed at least 28 people on Friday, the government said. Some 70 people were killed in earlier attacks in the capital, Damascus, on 23 December and 6 January. All the blasts struck security targets.
Nobody has taken responsibility for the attacks, but the regime said they have the hallmarks of Al Qaida and immediately blamed the global terror group.
Saturday's statement by al-Zawahri appears to bolster Assad's accusations, but the Syrian opposition and the Free Syrian Army reject the government's claims entirely. They accuse forces loyal to the regime of setting off the blasts to smear the opposition, terrify people into submission and exploit fears of chaos and sectarian warfare.
For many Syrians, the uncertainty over the future is cause for alarm in a country that has watched neighboring Lebanon and Iraq descend into bloody wars over the years. Syria is a fragile jigsaw puzzle of Middle Eastern backgrounds including Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Christians, Kurds, Druse, Circassians, Armenians and more.
After Friday's bombings in Aleppo, Zuheir al-Atasi, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council, accused the government of staging the attacks.
"After the heavy explosions, members of the opposition went to the site to film it. There were ambulances but no corpses. We documented that on tape," he said in Vienna during a gathering of Syrian opposition groups. "When the Syrian National TV arrived they started to bring out corpses. Once again we witnessed a theatre play."
There is virtually no way to determine who was behind the attacks or to perform an independent investigation in Syria, one of the most authoritarian states in the Middle East. Assad has largely sealed off the country and prevented reporters from moving freely. The Arab League sent a now-suspended observer mission into the country to provide an outside view, but government minders accompanied the team.
Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, a think tank in the Qatari capital, said prolonged chaos in Syria could open the door to extremist forces like Al Qaida.
"The longer this goes on, we may get a more permissive environment in Syria for these kinds of characters as the Syrian people get more and more desperate," he said. "I don't think they would be welcomed in Syria but there may be desperate people in Syria who are looking for any kind of help."
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