Counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation topped the agenda as foreign ministers from the G8 group of nations gathered for talks in London this week.

To put this another way, it means the international pariahs of Syria, North Korea and Iran have come under intense scrutiny.

North Korea's threats of all-out war and Iran's nuclear ambitions have hogged the international headlines of late, but some equally worrying developments have taking place in Syria.

I'm talking about reports over the past few days that the leader of the al Nusra Front – a jihadist group fighting in Syria – has pledged allegiance to the leader of al Qaeda, Ayman al Zawahiri.

Things have been far from harmonious among the ranks of Syria's myriad rebel groups over the past few months.

As the country's civil war grinds on, more than once in this column I've highlighted how those ostensibly allied in taking the war to the regime of President Bashar al Assad have increasingly found themselves at each other's throats.

In January, there was the killing of Thaer al Waqqas, northern leader of the Farouq Brigades of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), amid suspicions he himself was involved in the death of a commander linked to the al Nusra Front.

Then in March, Mohammad al Daher, another popular Farouq leader in eastern Syria, was badly wounded in an apparent attempt to assassinate him by the jihadists.

Within hours, Colonel Riad al Asaad, who established and commanded the FSA, was badly injured in a car bombing.

It was initially believed to be the work of the Damascus regime, but some now say the attack bore distinct similarities to the one on Mr al Daher.

All this of course points to a deepening rift between Islamist forces led by the increasingly powerful jihadist al Nusra Front and the more secular Farouq Brigades of the Free Syrian Army.

This in itself might not be that damaging for the Syrian rebellion were it not for the fact both groups are by far the most well-established and combat-efficient on the ground, responsible for achieving the vast majority of territorial and strategic gains made against President Assad's troops.

Indeed, only last month it was the al Nusra Front that played a pivotal role in the capture of Raqqah – Syria's first provincial capital to fall under opposition control – a victory that effectively consolidated the gains of an assortment of mostly Islamist-inclined groups across three of Syria's north-eastern provinces.

This al Nusra Front success presents something of a dilemma for the FSA, their foreign backers and sponsors, who cannot afford to isolate the Islamists if they want to make real gains on the battlefield.

For the United States, which on the one hand wants to see the toppling of the al Assad regime but on the other has blacklisted the combat effective al Nusra Front as a terrorist organisation, it means some deft manoeuvring on Washington's behalf when it comes to handling its relationship with rebel forces in Syria.

Given these factors, the looming question is how the al Nusra Front's now open affiliation with al Qaeda will affect its relationships with other rebel groups fighting against Mr Assad.

Are we perhaps looking at a rebel war within the already ongoing one between opposition and Syrian government forces?

"A full-blown civil war among the rebels is not out of the question," was how Victor Kotsev, an experienced Middle East political analyst, summed it up in a United Press International report last week.

For what it's worth, I would go further and say such a scenario is already underway.

If my assessment is borne out, could this rebel war perhaps turn out to be the defining conflict in shaping any future Syrian state and control of the significant resources the country has?

Alongside the Islamists' gains in Syria's north-eastern provinces are growing fears the country could be split along a north-south, Aleppo-Damascus divide – not unlike the intense rivalry in Libya between the Islamist east centred on Benghazi and the west dominated by Tripoli.

Earlier this week Abu Mohammed al Jawlani, the leader of the al Nusra Front, insisted the group's behaviour in Syria would not change as a result of pledging its allegiance to al Qaeda.

Such remarks are hardly surprising given the al Nusra Front is keen to continue winning hearts and minds in its "liberated" areas while simultaneously maintaining the impression that ousting President Assad remains its priority.

In so doing it has tried – unsuccessfully – to distance itself a little from its al Qaeda connection.

Though, admittedly, precise details of this jihadist merger remain unclear, al Qaeda's al Zawahiri has lost no time in taking maximum propaganda advantage of the situation, calling for Islamist rebels fighting the Assad regime to establish an Islamic state. Al Qaeda believes this could eventually re-establish an Islamic caliphate.

That al Qaeda is looking, as ever, to the "long war" in Syria –and is prepared to take on the US, Israel and even other Islamist rebels – is evident from messages on a "comprehensive strategy" posted recently on members-only jihadi forums associated with the terrorist organisation.

As US history professor Joshua Landis, who lived in Syria for several years and now teaches at the University of Oklahoma, rightly pointed out in an article last week, the real war in Syria "is being fought on the ground by militia leaders who are becoming the real leaders of Syria".

What remains to be seen in the coming days and months is who crumbles first: the Assad regime or the main rebel groups opposing it?

At the very least, this week's announcement by the al Nusra Front, alongside other developments, confirms suspicions the Syrian civil war is creating opportunities for transnational jihadists to coalesce in the region.

No doubt that very subject will figure large in the deliberations of foreign ministers from the G8 group of nations over the next few days. Not only will they face a renewed urgency over the rapidly changing situation inside Syria, but also a pressing need to put in place an effective counter- terrorism strategy to contain the fallout from it.