Twenty Egyptian Salafists including Mohammed al-Zawahiri, the brother of al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, urged Sunnis to target Hezbollah and others involved in the fighting in the Syrian town of al-Qusair (al-Qusayr).
According to U.S. and Syrian opposition officials, thousands of Shi’ite fighters from Hezbollah, Iran and Iraq have been involved in the fighting around the rebel-held town near the Syria-Lebanon border in recent weeks.
“Hezbollah and all who participated in the attack on Qusayr and other Muslim countries must be fought,” said the message, which was translated by the SITE Intelligence Group. “Iran and Hezbollah seek to divide the region into mini-states that follow their brand of Shi’ism.”
The message urged Sunnis to “deploy, whether you are light or heavy, to support and assist our people in the Levant in order to deter the aggression from them.”
It also made reference to attacks against minority Sunnis in Iraq, accusing Shi’ites of harboring a “deep hatred for our Sunni people everywhere that is no longer a secret.”
“We call upon the Sunnis in general in the countries that are ruled by the Shi’ites, and the mujahideen in particular, to target these countries and move the battle inside them …”
Countries ruled by Shi’ites are Iran and Iraq, while Syrian President Bashar Assad is an adherent of the Shi’ite Allawite sect. Among the rebels fighting him are Sunni jihadists including those belonging to the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front/Islamic State of Iraq (also sometimes labeled jointly as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.)
Mohammed al-Zawahiri is associated with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a group which his brother led and folded into al-Qaeda with the signing of Osama bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa announcing the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders.
Imprisoned in Egypt since 2000, Mohammed al-Zawahiri was one of the most prominent Islamists to be released after the Mubarak regime fell.
The message from him and the other Egyptians was released on May 25, the same day Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in a significant address to supporters in Lebanon pledged full military backing for the Assad regime and identified Sunni jihadists including al-Qaeda as the enemy.
Observers have long fretted that the Syrian civil war, which grew out of protests demanding government reforms, could turn into a wider conflict with a strong sectarian element.
With the involvement of Shi’ites from Lebanon, Iran and Iraq on the side of the regime, and of Salafist Sunnis including al-Qaeda among the rebel ranks, those fears appear to have been realized, and the recent messages from Nasrallah and the al-Qaeda-sympathizing Egyptian group seem intended to push the conflict further down that road.
The violence is already spreading beyond Syria’s borders.
Armed clashes in Lebanon between pro- and anti-Assad groups have been directly attributed to the fighting in Syria. In Iraq, meanwhile, sectarian violence is not new, but a recent surge of deadly bombings – the worst in five years – cannot be totally disconnected from the fighting in neighboring Syria.
Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has close ties with Iran, Assad’s key ally, and the U.S. has accused Iraq of allowing Iranian arms to enter Syria; Al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq is fighting against the regime in Syria and bombing Shi’ites in Iraq.
Reporting Wednesday on the message by the Egyptian extremists, an Iranian Shi’ite news agency, Ahlul Bayt, said that while al-Zawahiri and the others accused Shi’ites of killing Sunnis, he was silent about Shi’ites being killed in Iraq and elsewhere by “Salafi insurgents” such as al-Qaeda.