According to a private sector analyst informal assessments conducted by intelligence agencies from the U.S. and the Middle East the jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra, which is currently fighting in Syria against the Assad regime and has been labeled by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization, is the best equipped Al Qaeda affiliate in the world.
Concern about the Syrian al Qaeda-affiliated group Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the al-Nusra Front, is at an all-time high, according to the analyst, with as many as 10,000 fighters and supporters inside Syria. The United States has designated al-Nusra Front as a terrorist group with links to al Qaeda in Iraq.
That assessment is shared by some Middle Eastern intelligence agencies that have long believed the United States is underestimating the Sunni-backed al Qaeda movement in the country, according to a Middle East source. It is also believed that Iran is running training camps inside Syria for Hezbollah and that other Iranian militia fighters are coming into the country to fight for the regime.
The analyst has been part of recent discussions with the U.S. intelligence community, which is urgently working to understand what is going on inside the war-ravaged country and is consulting outside experts. The analyst, who declined to be named because of the sensitive nature of the information, stressed that all assessments about Syria are approximate at best because of the lack of U.S. personnel on the ground.
Even if, as the CNN story reports, the assessment is approximate it should concern policymakers that Jabhat al-Nusra is at the very least a well armed and dedicated jihadist group that is seeking to topple the Assad regime.
The presence of jihadists among Assad's opposition has been one of the arguments made against arming rebels in Syria. However, British Foreign Secretary William Hague does not think that if weapons were sent to rebels in Syria that they would fall into the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra. Hague backs up this claim by saying that there is no evidence that the non-lethal aid the U.K. has been sending moderate rebels in Syria has ended up in the hands of extremists like Jabhat al-Nusra, which is hardly the most reassuring of reasons to think that extremists won't pursue heavy weaponry were it provided to some of Assad's opposition.