WASHINGTON - Al-Qaeda has advanced beyond isolated pockets of activity in Syria and now is building a network of well-organized cells, according to U.S. intelligence officials, who fear the terrorists could be on the verge of establishing an Iraq-like foothold that would be hard to defeat if rebels eventually oust President Bashar al-Assad.
At least a couple of hundred al-Qaeda-linked militants are already operating in Syria, and their ranks are growing as foreign fighters stream into the Arab country daily, current and former U.S. intelligence officials say. The units are spreading from city to city, with veterans of the Iraq insurgency employing their expertise in bomb-building to carry out more than two dozen attacks so far. Others are using their experience in coordinating small units of fighters in Afghanistan to win new followers.
In Syria on Friday, rebel commanders appealed anew for new and better weapons from abroad, complaining that Assad's forces have them badly outgunned from the air and on the ground. In fact, rebel leaders say that with so little aid coming to them from the United States and other nations, they are slowly losing the battle for influence against hard-line militants. They say their fighters are sometimes siding with extremists who are better funded and armed so they can fight the far stronger Syrian army.
It all could point to a widening danger posed by extremists who have joined rebels fighting the Assad government. Although the extremists are ostensibly on the same side as Washington by opposing Assad, U.S. officials fear their presence could fundamentally reshape what began as a protest movement for reform composed of largely moderate or secular Syrians. The opposition expanded into a civil war pitting Assad's four-decade dictatorship against a movement promising a new, democratic future for the country.
The intelligence also offers some explanation for the Obama administration's reluctance to offer military aid to the anti-Assad insurgency, which Washington says it is still trying to better understand. U.S. officials have repeatedly rejected providing any lethal assistance to the conflict that has killed at least 19,000 people over the last 17 months. With the United States weighing its options, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will discuss the situation with top Turkish officials and Syrian opposition activists in Istanbul on Saturday.
Officials described the intelligence on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss confidential internal talks among intelligence and administration officials.
Underscoring the administration's desire to step up efforts against the Assad government without providing weapons, the United States set largely symbolic sanctions Friday on Syria's state-run oil company and Iranian-backed Hezbollah. It accused Iran and the Lebanese Shiite militant group of helping prop up Assad.