Estimates of the number of fighters in the Islamist Al-Nusra Front are numerous and no one can be sure of the correct figure. Perhaps ten to twenty thousand fighters are spread across battalions and brigades in the rural areas of Aleppo and Idlib. They arrived recently from eastern parts of Damascus and its suburbs. Thousands of them are non-Syrian Arabs and foreigners, although the founders were Syrians.
Numerically, these only make up a very small percentage of the total number of opposition fighters. In the operational sense, however, these are the spearhead of the armed Syrian opposition. They are the pioneers in the major battles. As such, the role of Al-Nusra is not measured by the number of its fighters but by its weight on the battlefield.
The US rushed to declare Al-Nusra to be a terrorist organisation; Europe is still divided on this issue, due mainly to Britain and France, who put off the matter until after the "military takeover" in Syria; the group's fighters are needed in order to overthrow Bashar Al-Assad. If and when that happens, the theory is that the other opposition groups and the Syrian Free Army, which are being armed and trained, will be required to turn against Al-Nusra; clearly, they have not learnt any lessons from Afghanistan or Iraq.
The rise of Al-Nusra along with similar radical groups is a key factor in changing the American position on Syria. From no to military intervention; no to arming the opposition; and no to making Syria a safe haven for Al-Qaeda and its branches, the development of Al-Nusra is pushing the US administration to come closer to the Russian reading of the "Geneva Statement". Thus we get to the point where Secretary of State John Kerry did not object to the idea of giving Assad a seat at the national dialogue table which Washington is talking about.
On a different but parallel path, the rapid growth of Al-Nusra's power has motivated Washington to think of "long term" alternatives to deal with the danger posed by the group. There is talk of US intelligence trying to collect precise information about the organisation, its framework, battalions, cadres, leadership and weapons' storage. This may lead to the deployment of drones, America's main policy against Al-Qaeda in Yemen, Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The tactic has hurt Al-Qaeda, despite the controversy about its legality, violations of sovereignty and gambling with the lives of innocent civilians.
The skies above Syria are filled by different aircraft and helicopters pounding militant and opposition forces across the country. Soon, they will be joined by US drones to hunt down and kill Al-Nusra fighters.
Washington has no problem about the logistics of drone use; Syria is surrounded by bases and military facilities which US forces can use. At the beginning of the Syrian revolution, some of the opposition bet on the US Air Force to put an end to the battle with the Assad regime. It didn't happen, and it now looks as if the only US involvement will see drones tackling Al-Nusra, a major opposition group. If it happens, the irony will no doubt be lost on the Obama administration.
The irony continues with tragicomic chapters involving Paris, London, and before them Doha, Riyadh and Ankara, pledging to send anti-aircraft weaponry to the Syrian opposition. Despite the talk of "right hands and wrong hands" no one can be sure that the weapons sent to the Free Army or other opposition groups today will not reach the "wrong hands" tomorrow. Ideological links between groups could be the conduit for this, as could Al-Nusra's ability to penetrate the leadership of other factions. Or it could simply be the "bazaar" dynamics of Syria, where anything can be bought and sold on the open market. In the end, it boils down to who needs it, who has the money, and the talent of "negotiation."
The author is the Director, AL Quds Center for Political Studies, Jordan. This article is a translation of the Arabic which appeared Addustour newspaper, 17/3/2013
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.