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Is Al Qaeda actually involved in the Syria uprising?

Embattled President Bashar al-Assad is blaming Al Qaeda and its affiliates for a spate of suicide bombings around Syria's capital, but analysts are skeptical.

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In a videotaped message issued in July 2011, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s new leader, applauded Syrian antiregime protestors, but implicitly admitted that his organization was absent from the confrontation.

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“God knows that if it were not for the raging war with the New Crusades in which we are engaged, … my brothers and I would be at your side today, in your midst defending you with our necks and chests,” he said.

Militant websites call for jihad against the Assad regime

As the violence has steadily worsened, some commentators on jihadist websites are openly calling for waging a jihad against the Assad regime. In November, Osama al-Shehabi, the leader of Al Qaeda-inspired Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon, called for an armed struggle in Syria.

“The regime’s brutal oppression of the Syrian people proves that it is time to change direction and use real weapons against the regime,” he wrote in an article that was published by the Shumoukh al-Islam online forum. “The revolution is a jihad; it is a war; prepare for jihad for God; scrutinize your intentions and take up arms, for they are your obligation.”

Last month the jihadist website Minbar al-Tawhid Wa al-Jihad posted a fatwa, or religious edict, by an influential Salafist cleric, in which he sanctioned the use of violence against the Assad regime.

“Why do you insist on confining yourselves to peaceful protests?” wrote Sheikh Abu Mundhir al-Shinqiti. “Is it a disgrace to kill those who kill us?... It has come to a stage where nothing will avail except taking up arms.”

Syria's troubled history with Sunni militants

Syria has a troubled and complex history of dealing with militant Sunni Islamists. In the early 1980s, the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood conducted a campaign of assassinations and bombings against regime targets before being ruthlessly crushed in the city of Hama in February 1982.

Syria’s ruling Baath Party espouses a secular Arab nationalist ideology which puts it firmly at odds with the Salafist jihadist credo of Al Qaeda. But the byzantine and ever-shifting politics of the Middle East can result in seemingly unlikely tactical arrangements.

Baathist Syria’s three-decade relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, on paper would seem improbable but it has proven to be one of the tightest and most enduring alliances in the region. Sometimes short-term mutual interests take precedence over ideological differences, which perhaps explains the Syrian regime’s alleged periodic tacit cooperation with Al Qaeda-inspired groups.

Damascus was repeatedly accused of facilitating the transfer of foreign fighters from Syria into Iraq following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq when Syria was under intense international pressure. Syria’s denials notwithstanding, the seizure by US troops in October 2007 of an Al Qaeda database recording details of nearly 700 Arab fighters – over 90 percent of whom were non-Syrians – showed that all of them had entered Iraq from Syria, even though explicit evidence of regime complicity was absent.

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