By Barbara Starr
Even as the Obama administration refuses to openly say whether CIA deliveries of small arms and ammunition to Syrian opposition fighters has begun, there is increasing doubt in many quarters that U.S. shipments will make much of a difference in fighting on the ground, as the intelligence picture for the rebels grows more dire.
"I don't believe the rebels are doomed, but I don't think there's any doubt that on the battlefield the advantage is clearly with (Syrian President) Bashar al-Assad," Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said Thursday on CNN's Situation Room.
"Why wouldn't there be? Tons of Russian equipment coming in, the Iranian Revolution Guard, jihadists from all over the region, 5,000 Hezbollah fighters and he's still calling it a civil war. What it is turning into is a regional conflict and the deciding factor on the battlefield is air power," McCain said.
Intelligence assessments appear to agree with that. Several U.S. officials CNN has spoken with say simply trying to gather the latest information on the number of fighters and weapons inventories on the ground is now a major priority.
This all comes as the Central Intelligence Agency continues to train small numbers of Syrian rebel forces at bases in Jordan, according to senior U.S. officials.
Syrian rebels are claiming they have received a number of heavy weapons including anti-tanks and anti-aircrafts missiles from "brotherly nations that support the Syrian revolution," Free Syrian Army political and media coordinator Louay Almokdad told CNN during a phone call from Turkey on Friday.
The Free Syrian Army believes the newly received weapon shipments "will be a turning point" in the war against the government forces "and will definitely change the rules of the war on the ground," Almokdad said.
But so far there is no indication those heavier weapons are coming from the United States. Complicating the situation on the ground, Russia has several warships offshore, which U.S. intelligence officials believe may be carrying missiles and other weapons to regime forces.
The situation is becoming even more complicated because of the growing, but uncertain strength of both Hezbollah, Iranian militia, and also al Qaeda fighters, which at various times have allied themselves with opposition and regime elements.
Broadly speaking, the United States believes Hezbollah may at any one time have up to 4,000 fighters inside Syria, mainly coming from Lebanon. It's believed Iran is providing them with weapons and that the group's next objective is to focus its fighting around Aleppo to help regime efforts to take territory back from the rebels. Iran's Revolutionary Guard is also sending in its fighters and running loosely organized training camps, officials said.
Equally worrisome for U.S. intelligence is Al Qaeda's affiliate inside Syria, which is now the best-equipped al Qaeda group in existence today, according to informal assessments by U.S. and Middle East intelligence agencies, a private sector analyst directly familiar with the information tells CNN.
This analyst has been part of recent discussions with the U.S. intelligence community, which is urgently trying to expand its knowledge about what is going on inside Syria and is consulting outside experts. The analyst, who declined to be named because of the sensitive nature of the information, emphasized all assessments about Syria are approximate at best, because of the lack of U.S. personnel on the ground.
The analyst said concern about the Syrian al Qaeda group Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the Al Nusra Front, is at an all-time high with the current calculation that it could have 5,000 to 10,000 fighters and supporters inside Syria.
That assessment is shared by some Middle Eastern intelligence agencies who have long believed the U.S. is underestimating the Sunni-backed al Qaeda movement in Syria, according to a Middle East source CNN spoke with.
There is also a widely held view that Iran is now running some training camps inside Syria for Hezbollah and other Iranian militias fighters coming into the country to fight in support of the regime. Administration officials have told CNN that with the growing strength and support for Al Nusra, U.S. concerns are growing about its ability to further destabilize Syria and potentially pose a greater regional threat.
"They are making desperate attempts to get chemical weapons," the analyst told CNN. He noted that in the last few weeks, security services in both Iraq and Turkey report arresting operatives who were "trying to get their hands on sarin."
Iraqi and Turkish news media had reported breaking up al Qaeda operations that were aimed at buying sarin gas. Both operations are being analyzed by the U.S. intelligence community.
Al Nusra, which originated in Iraq, has a Sunni-backed network of financial donors in the Gulf States and Lebanon. In recent weeks, its fighters also have captured a number of regime military installations, which has resulted in it getting access to a large inventory of weapons, including perhaps some small number of aircraft.
Moreover, the United States believes Al Nusra has recruited fighters of Middle Eastern descent living in Germany, Norway, France and Spain. There is also a belief about one dozen Americans, also some of Middle Eastern descent, have been recruited by Al Nusra, the analyst said.
Separately, a senior U.S. intelligence official confirmed to CNN several days ago that gathering intelligence on Syria, including its potential future use of chemical weapons, is now one of the top - if not the top - priority of the U.S. intelligence community. The growing involvement of Hezbollah Iranian militias and al Qaeda has increased dangers to regional security, the official said.