Al-Qaeda's high command staked its interest in the outcome of Syria's civil war yesterday as its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, called on jihadist fighters to build an anti-Western state after toppling President Bashar al-Assad.
In remarks that underline how al-Qaeda now sees the Syrian conflict as its best political chance in years, Zawahiri warned rebel fighters not to do the West's work by replacing Assad with a moderate, democratic government. Instead, he called for the creation of an Islamic caliphate that would then wage all-out war with neighbouring Israel.
"America, its agents and allies want you to shed your blood and the blood of your children and women to bring down the criminal Ba'athist regime, and then set up a government loyal to them and to safeguard Israel's security," he said.
Zawahiri's comments, which raise the prospect of a three-sided war between secular moderates, Sunni extremists loyal to al-Qaeda, and the Shia regime of Assad, were made in an audio broadcast timed to mark the 65th anniversary of Israel's creation.
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It comes amid mounting Western concern about how groups linked to al-Qaeda factions are now dominant in the rebel front lines, to which they bring better weapons and battlefield experience honed in Iraq. Their principal organisation is the Al-Nusra Front, which pledged allegiance to Zawahiri in April.
As well as alarming secular rebel groups, who took up arms in the hope of achieving a multi-party democracy, the success of Nusra has shored up the remaining bedrock of support for Assad, allowing him to portray himself as a champion against terrorism and fundamentalism.
Meanwhile, Syrian rebels briefly seized control of a border crossing along the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights yesterday, prompting the withdrawal of a major Austrian peacekeeping contingent and heightening fears in Israel that it could soon be dragged into the neighbouring country's civil war.
By nightfall, the situation appeared to be quieting down as Israel's forces remained on high alert.