Washington: US intelligence officials have warned that al Qaeda is gaining ground in strife-hit Syria and has advanced beyond isolated pockets of activity.
According to officials, the terror group is busy putting together a network of well-organized cells and could be on the verge of gaining an Iraq-like foothold. If that happens and rebels eventually manage to dethrone President Bashar al-Assad, it would be hard to defeat al-Qaeda, US officials fear.
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 US 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 US and other nations, they are slowly losing the battle for influence against hardline 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, US 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.
Meanwhile, Syrian rebels were running low on ammunition and guns on Friday and appealed for international help as government forces tried to consolidate their control over Aleppo, the country`s largest city and a deadly battleground in recent weeks.
"The warplanes and helicopters are killing us, they`re up there in the sky 15 hours a day," said Mohammad al-Hassan, an activist in Aleppo`s main rebel stronghold of Salaheddine. "I don`t know how long this situation can be sustained."
As for a possible diplomatic solution, former Algerian foreign affairs minister and long-time UN official Lakhdar Brahimi emerged as a candidate to replace Kofi Annan as peace envoy to Syria. Annan announced his resignation last week, ending a six-month effort that failed to achieve even a temporary cease-fire as the country descended into civil war.
A fresh wave of civilians was streaming across the border into neighbouring Turkey. Officials there said more than 1,500 Syrians had arrived over the previous 24 hours, increasing the number of refugees in Turkey to about 51,500.
(With Agency inputs)