The concerns help explain why opposition groups remain outgunned despite backing from the United States and some of the region’s most powerful regimes.
Despite criticism from Republicans, the administration is reluctant to be drawn more deeply into another Middle East conflict. But in explaining their restraint, administration officials also cited the ongoing confusion about the composition of anti-Assad groups.
“The United States has a rather checkered history with arming opposition groups — we’re currently fighting one,” an administration official said, alluding to the decision in the 1980s to arm militias in Afghanistan that later morphed into al-Qaeda. “You really have to think hard about the second- or third-order effects of making that decision,” the official said, adding that in Syria “there could be a number of extremist elements.”
“The agency and others are trying to learn more about them,” the official said. “It’s still the case that without actual access to Syria, it’s hard to know exactly who they are.”
Seeking other ways to undermine Assad, the CIA and other spy agencies have expanded efforts to disrupt the flow of arms to the regime from Iran. Officials also cited the bombing in Damascus last week that killed four members of Assad’s inner circle as evidence that the opposition is increasingly capable even without lethal aid from the United States.
U.S. officials said intelligence on some aspects of the conflict in Syria has improved. Developments such as advances of rebel forces and defections within the nation’s military are being tracked remotely through satellite imagery and intercepted e-mails and calls.
U.S. intelligence analysts think that the bombing in Damascus was carried out by an insider with access to top Syrian national security officials. In contrast with the string of bombings earlier in the year, the latest attack has not been linked to al-Qaeda.
Although intelligence on the opposition is incomplete, “we know a lot more than we did,” said a senior administration official who helps oversee Syria policy. “We’re identifying the key leaders, and there are a lot of them. We are in touch with them, and we stay in touch.”
Others cast doubt on that assertion.
“The folks that have been identified have been identified through Turkey and Jordan,” another U.S. official said. “It's not because of who we know. It’s all through liaison.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other senior U.S. officials have met with some opposition leaders. But officials described the Free Syrian Army and other groups as a disorganized front, unlike the unified Transitional National Council in Libya.
In that country, the CIA had inserted teams within weeks of the outbreak of violence to contact opposition groups and, later, help secure chemical weapons sites. Syria, with backing from Iran, is considered a more formidable espionage adversary, and it is suspected of possessing more chemical weapons stockpiles than Libya had.
Congressional officials said they have pressed the CIA for details on its plan to protect chemical weapons sites in Syria but have been rebuffed.
“We keep asking questions,” said a congressional aide who was not authorized to publicly discuss sensitive intelligence matters. “We get nothing.”
The fear that allies of al-Qaeda might acquire such weapons in the chaos of a Damascus collapse is a major concern for U.S. counterterrorism officials. Al-Qaeda’s presence has expanded in Syria over the past six months, officials said. But it still represents a small fraction of the opposition to Assad, and there are indications that its fighters are no longer blending into the insurgency as seamlessly as they did at the start of the war.
The rebels have tried to keep their distance from al-Qaeda, leaving the group “disconnected from the rest of the opposition,” said a U.S. official familiar with recent CIA assessments.