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Syria lebanon jihad 2012 5 17
Lebanese army troops enter Bab al-Tebbaneh, one of two rival neighbourhoods in the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli, on May 15, 2012 to order battling gunmen off the streets. Five people were killed and nearly 20 wounded in sectarian clashes linked to unrest in neighbouring Syria the previous day, according to a security official. (-/AFP/Getty Images)

Syria: The new land of jihad?

Militants have declared a holy war in Syria. But experts warn the regime may be manipulating the threat to serve its own interests.

BEIRUT, Lebanon — As foreign fighters linked to Al Qaeda declare Syria “a land of jihad,” experts say the 14-month old uprising has taken a murky and dangerous turn.

A senior Lebanese security official said at least 150 foreign militants have gained a foothold inside the country. At the same time, he said, Syrian Islamic fundamentalists, supported by patrons in the Gulf, are growing in prominence.

It’s a volatile mix similar to the one that violently upended Iraq during the US-led occupation. But in Syria’s case, it is not entirely clear whether the foreign militants are fighting for the regime or against it.

The government of President Bashar al-Assad has leaped on the increase in militants to bolster its long-held claim that foreign terrorists are at the heart of the popular uprising. The regime has appealed to the UN Security Council for help battling terrorist groups, which Syria says is responsible for two massive truck bombs in Damascus on May 10 that killed 55 people and injured more than 370.

More from GlobalPost inside Syria: Syrians lose faith in UN peace plan

But as last week’s attacks in Damascus grabbed global headlines, experts on Syria warned that Assad’s regime has a history of manipulating jihadi groups to serve its own political interests, and that it remained unclear who ultimately orchestrated a string of Al Qaeda-style attacks that began in January.

On a video posted to YouTube on Feb. 26, a little-known group called the Al Nusra Front took responsibility for some of the bombings. Media reports quoted western officials saying the group, which also claimed last week’s attacks in Damascus, was affiliated with Al Qaeda, without offering further evidence.

Experts, however, have raised doubts about the veracity of the video, indicating it could have been fabricated to support the idea that the government is under attack by foreign terrorists. It features an apparent suicide bomber, his face blurred and his voice distorted, which is unusual for such martyrdom videos. Later a woman, who says she is from Homs, describes how men broke into her house while she was reading the Quran and raped her. But a Syrian linguist said the woman’s accent was identifiably Damascene, not from Homs.

Mathieu Guidere, a France-based author of several books on Al Qaeda, told AFP that the “most credible hypothesis is that these groups carry out — or are made to carry out the attacks — so that the general public confuses them with Al Qaeda,” thereby driving a wedge between citizens and the rebels.

The native rebels of the Free Syrian Army denied any role in the explosions, saying they have neither the capability nor motivation to carry them out. An Al Qaeda-linked jihadi leader with fighters in Syria also denied any responsibility.

“Looked at historically, the Assad regime may be secular, but it has extensive relations with jihadi groups, whether allowing them to transit Syria to fight the US in Iraq or in Lebanon to carry out its foreign policy objectives,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who spent seven years working in Damascus.

More from GlobalPost inside Syria: Who bombed Damascus?

Some of the foreign fighters in Syria are career jihadis who are suspected of having links to, or of being manipulated by, the Syrian regime.

On April 20, for example, Abdel Ghani Jawhar, one of Lebanon’s most wanted terrorists, was killed by a bomb he was making in Qseir, a stronghold of armed rebels, south of Homs.

Experts said it was as likely Jawhar was fighting in Syria for the regime as against it, given his history of violence in Lebanon, which served Syria’s interests.

Jawhar had been accused of attacks on the Lebanese army, and of playing a role in several political killings, including the 2008 murder of Wissam Eid, a key Lebanese military investigator looking into the assassination of five-time Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, which was initially blamed on Syria. Jawhar was also accused of the 2007 assassination of Waleed Eido, a member of the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition formed after Hariri’s murder.

Fatah Islam, the group that Jawhar went on to join, was founded by Shaker al-Abssi, a former member of Fatah Intifada, a Palestinian militant group known for its