For 10 months, the world has watched in horror as Bashar al Assad's regime carries out regular massacres against unarmed civilians across Syria in a bid to quell the unrest gripping the country. No doubt inspired by the successes of their Arab brethren elsewhere, thousands of Syrians have staged protests asking that their rights and dignity be respected. Although the Syrian government has vacillated between intensifying its crackdown and feigning interest in meeting some demands of its people, it's clear that Assad is not likely to follow the example of Egypt's Mubarak or Tunisia's Ben Ali by stepping down.
As the violence continues, the international community might have no choice but to usher Assad out, as was done with Libya's Gaddafi. Otherwise, Al Qaeda could come back from the precipice.
Two massive suicide bombings that exploded near government security buildings in Damascus on 23 December and a similar attack on 6 January raised more than a few eyebrows. Almost instantly the Syrian government attributed the carnage to Al Qaeda. Just as quickly, opposition figures questioned the claims, accusing the government of orchestrating the bombings, a pretext for cracking down on protesters trying to bring another chapter in the Arab Spring to a successful conclusion. Making matters murkier was the fact that the attacks coincided with the arrival of Arab League observers assessing whether the Syrian regime is adhering to a league-sponsored plan to end the violence.
Weeks later, no group, including Al Qaeda, has taken credit for the operations that left scores of Syrians dead.
Syria has long had ties to militant groups including Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Only a few years ago many thought of Syria as a main conduit through which foreign Sunni militants were entering Iraq. Whether Al Qaeda has established a foothold in Syria may not be clear for some time, and in some ways, it is immaterial.
Unless the international community takes a more proactive role in stopping the violence, the prospects of Syria becoming a new destination and haven for foreign jihadists - rivaling Afghanistan in the 1980s or Iraq after 2003 - are real.
A combination of brutality, arrogance and short-sightedness by Assad's regime has furnished Al Qaeda with a treasure-trove of readymade recruitment material which could potentially galvanize militants across the Muslim world. Equally as important, the Syria narrative may also resonate with moderate Muslims who will find it difficult to criticize Al Qaeda's attacks if they target the regime exclusively. Sunni-majority nations, a number of which have strongly condemned the Syrian regimes' repression, may not try to stop such an outflow.
Videos of Assad's thugs - known across the Arab world as Shabiha - have been posted on the internet. At least one shows a man, ostensibly a Sunni, being forced to say "there is no God but Bashar," and thousands of youths in Arabic chat rooms have responded to express revulsion and sympathy.
Those same bloggers also expressed contempt for Muammar Gaddafi during the revolution last year, yet those emotions were tempered by the Libyan ruler's reputation as a raving lunatic. People throughout the region do not regard Assad as crazy, and the hatred directed at him personally is almost unprecedented. Most importantly, the violence in Libya was not refracted through a religious prism. Libya is 97 percent Sunni Muslims; both Gaddafi and the Libyan rebels were Sunni. That is not the case in Syria, where the regime is Alawi, a branch of Shia, ruling over a population that is 70 percent Sunni.