Terrorist group fills power vacuum among Syria rebels

(CNN) — In the midst of the struggle against Bashar al-Assad’s government stands Jabhat al-Nusra, recently designated by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization.

A new report by the Quilliam Foundation in London says the organization is the most effective arm of the Syrian insurgency and now fields about 5,000 fighters against the Assad regime.

Practically speaking, the terrorist designation means little that is new for the immediate struggle in Syria. Shortly after al-Nusra claimed credit for one of its early suicide bombings in January 2012, the Obama administration made known al-Nusra’s connection to al Qaeda in Iraq, a group with which I was intimately familiar in my capacity as an analyst and targeting officer at the Central Intelligence Agency.

The administration’s position was reinforced when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper one month later testified in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee that “…we believe al-Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria.”

Al-Nusra is filling a power vacuum through charitable efforts to galvanize local support and generating influence among Syrians. In light of al-Nusra’s influence in Syria, the real question is not so much about the scope and scale of al-Nusra currently, but rather how should the United States respond to its rise, particularly after al-Assad’s eventual exit?  ……continued on CNN.com