The following three stills are taken from recent YouTube videos that appear to have been posted by supporters of the anti-Assad rebellion in Syria. The first of the anti-Assad videos is titled “Demonstration of people of the Tawhid in Deir Ezzor against Bashar’s regime 02/25/12.” The original name of al-Zarqawi’s group was al-Tawhid wal-Jihad or “Monotheism and Jihad.” According to a West Point study of al-Qaeda’s foreign fighters in Iraq, fully one-third of the Syrian recruits came from the city of Deir ez-Zor.
The latter two images appear to show jihadist brigades from Homs. Note the presence in the last image of both the flag of the Syrian rebellion and a modified version of the al-Qaeda flag.
Some pro-rebellion online commentators have suggested that the video from which the last image is taken is a fake intended to discredit the rebellion. But the fact that it has been linked to on jihadist Internet forums suggests that jihadists themselves regard it as authentic. (See here
, for instance, on Muslm.net; note that the poster of the clip uses the al-Qaeda flag as an avatar.)
In any case, there is abundant corroborating evidence of al-Qaeda involvement in the rebellion. This evidence includes the recent appearance in Syria of lieutenants of the Libyan jihadist leader Belhadj and the statements of Sheikh Louay al-Zouabi, a self-avowed admirer of al-Qaeda who claims to have issued the fatwa that sparked the Syrian rebellion. The Lebanese news site Al-Akhbar recently interviewed a Salafi jihadist leader in Lebanon who made no secret of his group’s support for the anti-Assad rebellion in Syria. Indeed, the Al-Akhbar reporter discovered six wounded members of the Free Syrian Army in the Salafi leader’s hideout. Salafism is the ultra-conservative form of Islam embraced by al-Qaeda.
Moreover, video footage of public anti-Assad demonstrations in Syrian cities such as Homs and Aleppo persistently reveals the presence of so-called “caliphate flags”: both a simple black flag with the shahada written on it in white, and a white flag that is its mirror image. The black “caliphate” flag was the first flag to serve as al-Qaeda’s banner (before the founding of al-Qaeda in Iraq). The white flag was used by the Taliban.
While expat figureheads like Syrian National Council chairman Burhan Ghalioun may well keep their distance from Islamism, the widespread presence of caliphate flags in the demonstration footage makes unmistakably clear the largely Islamist inspiration of the anti-Assad forces actually in Syria. See, for instance, the recent footage of a demonstration in a suburb of Aleppo here. Per the translation of Joshua Landis, the crowd chants, “Heroes of Islam, No to Bashar and no to Ghalioun. We want Islam to rule.”
— John Rosenthal writes on European politics and transatlantic security issues. You can follow his work at www.trans-int.com or on Facebook.