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Al Qaeda has established a limited operational capability in Syria and is responsible for several attacks on Assad targets, the official said. He said analysts believe the goal is to “sow further chaos” and advance an extremist agenda.

The official would not comment on any military aid that might be given to the rebels by U.S. allies.

Yet he and others acknowledged the situation is growing direr.

AP interviews with security officials, rebels and arms dealers in countries neighboring Syria indicate that individual rebel units have to scrounge for weapons. They have no central organization and no import routes for anything heavier than automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades.

It is into this mix that the U.S. soon may be inserting itself.

Washington’s supplies of communications equipment and medical supplies to opposition members it has approved are already under way. Officials said that those supplies now can be easily augmented with weapons from other donors.

“Smuggling lines are smuggling lines. We use the same donkeys,” said one, pointing out that the routes are essentially the same for bandages as they are for bullets.

Associated Press writers Anne Gearan and Kimberley Dozier in Washington and Elizabeth Kennedy in Beirut contributed to this report.