Does the fact that al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has urged the overthrow of Syria’s “pernicious, cancerous regime” serve to discredit the revolt against Bashar al-Assad? Is this a reason for the West to stand on the sidelines and tacitly allow Assad to remain in power? Hardly. It argues for the opposite policy: Hastening Assad’s fall so as not to create the conditions that would allow al-Qaeda to establish itself in Syria.
Groups like al-Qaeda are supreme opportunists–they will take advantage of any chaos, any unrest to try to spread their poisonous philosophy and organization.
They had some success doing this in Iraq after 2003 because international troops stood by and allowed a civil war to rage. Al-Qaeda had no such success in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s where international troops intervened to end the war and establish order. Granted, there are other differences between the Balkans and Iraq, but Islamist terrorists have shown they can establish themselves in any ungoverned space from Africa to Southeast Asia. The longer the fighting goes on in Syria, the more opportunities there will be for extremists.
Our best bet is to help organize the opposition into an effective shadow government and work with its military arm, the Free Syrian Army, to hasten a change of regime in Damascus so as to reestablish order–something the Assad regime has singularly failed to do over the course of the last year. The longer Assad tries to hang on, the more foreign jihadists will flock to Syria and the more Syria’s conflict will turn into a de facto regional civil war as already happened in Lebanon and Iraq. Those are sobering examples that we should strive to avoid at every cost.