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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.

connections to Syrian intelligence.

Convicted on terrorism charges and jailed in Syria, where membership in even the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood carries a life sentence, Abssi was mysteriously released early from a Damascus prison and traveled to Lebanon. Shortly after Fatah Islam attacked the Lebanese army, triggering the worst internal fighting in Lebanon since the country’s ruinous 15-year civil war.

“Attacks like the recent bombs in Damascus are not the work of the opposition but rather third parties that can be manipulated. We’ll never get to the bottom of it, but in the end, attacks like this function politically,” Tabler said.

Tabler added that the attacks have only served to help the Syrian government. “The regime benefits very much by stoking fears in the community, and minorities in particular, and making the international community think twice before getting involved in Syria.”

That said, at least some of the foreign militant jihadist groups trickling into Syria do appear to be fighting the regime.

In February, Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri called on militants in countries bordering Syria to join their “brothers” in fighting the “cancerous regime.”

And last week US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters that US intelligence indicated “an Al Qaeda presence in Syria." But he said the extent of its activity was unclear.

A member of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades in Lebanon, a militant group named after the founding member of Al Qaeda, told GlobalPost that although his organization played no role in the recent bombings, it had sent fighters into Syria to fight what he called Assad’s “infidel regime.”

“What is happening in Syria today is a jihad,” said the man, known as Abu Hamza, who is wanted in Lebanon for sending foreign militants to fight alongside Al Qaeda in Iraq during the US-led war.

“After seeing all the killing of women and children and the targeting of Sunnis, our Islamic laws tell us this is now a jihad.”

More from GlobalPost: Syria is beginning to look a lot like Iraq

The Azzam Brigade describes itself as takfiri, an extremist belief that brands moderate Muslims or non-Muslims as infidels. It is the same ideology followed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the famous leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq whose extreme violence, including beheadings, eventually appalled his host community.

Syria’s own fundamentalist religious leaders are also joining the fight, using financing from donors living outside the country, confusing the conflict even further and raising the specter of ever more widespread violence.

“Prophet Mohammed said that Syria is the land of jihad and we believe in everything the Prophet said,” Ahmad Abu Berri, a prominent Syrian salafi, told GlobalPost. Salafis are Sunni Muslims who seek to follow the ways of the Prophet and the first generation of Muslims from early 7th century Arabia.

Interviewed in north Lebanon, where he said he was seeking to buy weapons, including rockets and mortars, Abu Berri said his finances came from Syrian expatriates and sympathizers, mainly in Gulf countries.

“The Lebanese government makes it very hard for us. But when you have the source of life,” he said, referring to money, “you can buy anything, even a tank.”

The Lebanese security source said he had seen evidence that Gulf countries like Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were funneling millions of dollars to Syrians in Lebanon.

“It comes as aid to refugees but we know they are buying weapons with it,” he said.

Assad warned Arab Gulf countries on Wednesday to stay out of the Syrian conflict, threatening retaliation in a statement made on a Russian television station.

"For the leaders of these countries, it's becoming clear that this is not 'Spring' but chaos, and as I have said, if you sow chaos in Syria you may be infected by it yourself, he told Russia's Rossiya-24 TV channel, according to Reuters.

As the conflict in Syria grows ever more violent and ever more clouded, the Lebanese security source warned of a descent into full-blown civil war.

“Syria is now like the early days of Iraq,” he said. “If the situation continues it will attract more fighters from the region. The Syrian rebels will accept them under the slogan of defending Muslims, but sooner or later they will discover that they have their own agenda. Then they will start killing each other.”

Rami Aysha contributed reporting for this story from Beirut.