Al-Suri was captured in Pakistan in 2005 and the U.S. transferred him to Syria the next year. He and his top aide are now free. The regime did this in order to reinforce the Islamists-or-us narrative and to remind the West that it risks losing all counter-terrorism cooperation in the future. Zawahiri’s video actually helps the Assad regime more than it hurts it.
There are many secular Syrians who don’t want Assad or the Islamists in power, like Kamal al-Labwani who argues for an Islamic “reformation” to bring the region into modernity. Unfortunately for them, the Islamists play a big role in the opposition and their power will expand as neighboring countries get involved.
The secularists regularly complain that the Syrian National Council, the umbrella opposition body, has excessive Islamist influence. Its representatives even met with Qaradawi in Qatar. The current leader of the SNC, Burhan Ghalioun, is a secularist and an ally of the West but he won’t lead the organization forever. His likely successor is Louay Safi, an individual very involved with the Muslim Brotherhood in the U.S.
In November, the Free Syria Army met with Abdelhakim Belhaj, a militia leader with past ties to Al-Qaeda as the former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. There are reports that 600 Libyan fighters were sent to Syria to help the opposition. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Arab steps are signaling their intent to more substantively help the opposition. Their influence will bolster the Islamists.
For now at least, the U.S. seems determined to let these other countries take the lead in supporting the Syrian opposition. The same thing was done in Libya. Qatar, a U.S. “ally,” took on an important role in ousting Muammar Qaddafi’s regime and then used the opportunity to help the Islamists. To this day, a struggle is underway in Libya between secularists and Islamists backed by Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Assad regime is a major sponsor of terrorism, is Iran’s closest ally and it played a destructive role in Iraq that contributed to the deaths of many American soldiers. There are potential allies within the Syrian opposition but Islamist influence is strong and increasing. The West is struck between a rock and a hard place.
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