Syria, Al Qaeda, and cognitive dissonance for fans of intervention

Want Bashar al-Assad out of power in Syria? Al Qaeda's on your team.

Mohammad Hannon/AP
Syrians chant anti-Bashar al-Assad slogans during a protest in front of the Syrian embassy in Amman, Jordan, Friday, Feb. 17.

A recent audiotape from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Pakistan-based Egyptian exile who runs what's left of "Al Qaeda Central" called for Muslims to rise up and toss out Syria's Bashar al-Assad.

That's hardly surprising. Al Qaeda's ideology leads it to hate all secular regimes, but reserves a special hatred for the likes of Syria and Iran, countries that are run by what it considers to be apostates who, if Al Qaeda had its way, would all be put to the sword. Shiite Iran is bad enough. But Alawites, a sect that believes in reincarnation and divinities beyond the one singular God? The religion of Mr. Assad is practically tailor-made to stir the fury of Salafi jihadis like Al Qaeda.

US officials have started claiming that there is evidence of "Al Qaeda" behind some of the attacks on government forces in Syria, though what precisely they mean by "Al Qaeda" they don't say (the term seems to have become a catch-all for "Sunni jihadi"). Meanwhile, some analysts say Iran is watching all this with alarm, since Syria is something of a client regime and the loss of Assad could leave it more vulnerable to the machinations of enemies like the US and Israel

But take heart, Iran! Remember that Syrian regime that Al Qaeda is going to help topple and severely damage your regional standing in the process? Al Qaeda is here to help, Tehran.

At least, that's that claim of a recent strain of analysis that's started to emerge practically simultaneously with the dour Mr. Zawahiri's latest performance. Some experts say Al Qaeda and Iran are set to jump into bed together with the enemy of my enemy is my friend logic. These claims have been particularly persistent in the British press, though they've found a home on this side of the pond as well (Fox News).

A recent example is from The Telegraph.

The Islamic regime, which was accused of attempting to assassinate Israeli diplomats in three countries this week, is seeking to expand the network of Western enemies it assists, officials believe. As a result, Tehran has loosened restrictions on high level al–Qaeda operatives under its controls as well as offering financing and training to the terrorist group's senior planners.

Security experts said that recent intelligence suggested Iran and al–Qaeda could attempt to find a common project in Europe, possibly targeting the London Olympics, which opens in July.

So, if you chose to believe everything you read: Al Qaeda is definitely working to destroy Syria's Assad, who is definitely a vital ally and asset of Iran, and Iran in turn is stepping up its cooperation and support for Al Qaeda (which may then use that help to undermine Iran's interests in Syria.). Got it?

In the murky world of great power politics, war, rumors of war, terrorism and rumors of terrorism, anything is possible. But from my perch, there's a growing amount of fairly mutually exclusive fear mongering in news articles and on the airwaves.

I lived through the run-up to the Iraq war and then learned from bitter experience that almost none of the dire predictions made about Iraq's relations with Al Qaeda, its alleged weapons stockpiles, and what might happen to them, came true. I feel like I'm living a rerun this week.

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