Al Qaida's new leader has praised Syrian protesters seeking to topple the regime of president Bashar Assad while trying to portray the uprising as an Islamic battle against American and Israeli interests.
A video message posted on extremist websites on Wednesday is Ayman al-Zawahri's first since al Qaida named him its new leader in June following the death of Osama bin Laden in a US commando raid in Pakistan.
Egyptian-born al-Zawahri directly addressed the Syrian protesters who have risen up against Assad's rule despite a bloody government crackdown. The message appeared to be an attempt to place al Qaida firmly on the side of the anti-government demonstrators.
"You are an example, explaining lessons to your Arab and Muslim nation in sacrifice, steadfastness and the struggle against oppression," al-Zawahri said of the protesters. "How could you not? You are the sons of the Levant, the front for jihad and martyrdom."
In the past, al Qaida leaders, including bin Laden himself in a video released after his death, have sought to associate themselves with the uprisings sweeping the Arab world this year, offering guidance on how the protests should be led to serve al Qaida's extremist version of Islam.
Many experts, however, think the uprisings have shown how out of touch the terror group has become with the aspirations of Arab youth who have been the uprising's main activists. Most seek greater freedom from dictatorial regimes, not the Islamic rule al Qaida backs.
And in Syria, activists have said religion has played little role in their uprising to topple Assad.
In the video, Zawahri also warned the Syrian protesters not to believe that president Barack Obama and the United States stand with them. He also claimed that Washington wants to replace Assad with "a new ruler who follows America, protects Israel's interests and grants the (Muslim) nation a few freedoms."
"Tell America and Obama: ... we are waging a battle of freedom and liberation, freedom from corrupt tyrants and the liberation of the religion of the Muslims," al-Zawahri said.
The US administration has toughened its rhetoric toward Assad's regime, declaring recently that the Syrian leader has lost all legitimacy as a leader.