There is more clarity about the increasing role being played by Islamist elements within the insurgency, and here two decisions endorsed by Barack Obama’s administration are significant: to recognise (along with its diplomatic partners in the “Friends of Syria”) the legitimacy of the main rebel coalition, and to place one of several Islamist paramilitary groups operating in Syria, the al-Nusra Front, on the list of foreign terrorist organisations.

… A leading priority is to minimise or prevent any role for Islamist groups in the new Syria, perhaps the main reason for designating the al-Nusra Front as terrorist. It is a predictable choice of action, but two factors on the ground make its impact anything but straightforward.

The first is that this group is but one of many that are motivated by varying degrees of Islamist thinking. …

The second is that al-Nusra and similar groups have proved to be particularly competent in waging war against the Assad regime. Their single-mindedness and strong religious motivation are important here: apart from anything else, a war fervour with an eschatological dimension where even death in combat can be seen as a matter of faith puts boldness rather than caution at the forefront of their thinking.