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.
By Barbara Starr
Al Qaeda's affiliate inside Syria is now the best-equipped arm of the terror 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 told CNN.
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.
By Carol Cratty
U.S. authorities had a former soldier they were investigating removed from a "no-fly" list and allowed him to travel from Turkey to the United States where he was promptly arrested on charges related to fighting alongside a terror group in Syria.
That unusual step, revealed on Monday by a federal prosecutor in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, allowed authorities to get Eric Harroun back in the United States without having to ask Turkish authorities to arrest him.
Harroun, 30, of Phoenix, was not in FBI custody during the flight, but agents were aboard and observed him, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Carter Burwell.
He did not say when Harroun had been placed on the "no-fly" list or whether he was aware of it.
The FBI interviewed Harroun three times in March in Istanbul about his alleged activities in Syria.
The growing strength of extremist groups across the Middle East and Africa has led the Obama Administration to begin a classified review of just who it can go after under its targeted killing program.
The current congressional authorization to use military force, allows the President to "use all necessary and appropriate force" against any persons or organizations involved in planning or carrying out the September 11th attacks–its been interpreted to include al Qaeda affiliates.
But emerging terrorist groups sympathetic to al Qaeda do not necessarily have a direct link to the core Al Qaeda network responsible for the September 11th attack, CNN's Barbara Starr reports.
By Nic Robertson and Paul Cruickshank
In scenes reminiscent of Iraq, a wave of blasts targeting government forces devastated the center of Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city Wednesday. And a hardline jihadist group, Jabhat al Nusra – quickly claimed responsibility for the attacks – posting photographs and martyrs' messages online.
Syrian state media reported three suicide bombers detonated explosives packed into cars – killing dozens within a kilometer of the city’s ancient citadel.
Analysts who follow the group tell CNN that Al Nusra has been preparing to intensify its campaign of suicide bombings for weeks. They believe the group has close links with al Qaeda's affiliate in Iraq. And this complex attack suggests it is becoming more accomplished at the sort of attacks that the Iraqi group has launched with such devastating effect.
By Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister
(CNN) - The latest in a flurry of messages from al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri shows his growing interest in exploiting violence in Syria. In a 35-minute audio address posted on jihadist forums on Wednesday, Zawahiri claimed the United States was actually supporting the Assad regime to prevent an Islamist state from taking its place.
"Supporting jihad in Syria to establish a Muslim state is a basic step towards Jerusalem, and thus America is giving the secular Baathist regime one chance after another, for fear that a government is established in Syria that would threaten Israel," Zawahiri said, according to a translation provided by the SITE Monitoring Service.
It is not the first time Zawahiri has cast a covetous eye over events in Syria.
In February, he used most of an address to try to graft al Qaeda onto the growing insurgency.