By Chris Lawrence
Syrian rebels are through waiting for substantial arms from western nations and Arab countries and are instead increasingly cutting their own deals to get weapons from extremists, including al Qaeda-like groups, a senior U.S. lawmaker told CNN.
"Even rebels we've identified as somebody we could work with have partnered with jihadists, because they have their own sources of money and weapons," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said in an interview.
The Obama administration has been cautiously aiding in the vetting of Syrian rebels, and sticking to its policy of only providing non-lethal aid like computers and satellite communication gear.
Since moderate Syrian rebels are not getting the heavy firepower they need from the United States, they're going to well-armed and well-funded extremists for help in fighting Bashar al Assad's regime, Rogers said.
Administration officials have been cautious due to the fluid nature of the Syrian civil war, and the difficulty in determining the ideology of rebel commanders.
"It's not just a matter of individual leaders. It's also a matter of ensuring that the groups that are working there are not becoming infiltrated," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Officials have been worried about providing weapons to the rebels that could fall into the hands of extremists or be used to commit terrorist acts. But the approach of careful vetting may be running out of time.
"Certain elements of the rebels are reaching across to these jihadist units, because they tend to be armed and effective and committed fighters, which is more than they can say for their own units at times," said Rogers, a Michigan Republican.
He described a scenario in which jihadists offer to drive a car bomb into a gate, which is a valuable weapon for a Syrian rebel commander trying to fight Assad's better-armed, more technologically-advanced forces.
"You could see how these decisions get made and these relationships could be developed."
Firepower from elsewhere
While the United States has provided rebels with non-lethal weapons, the real firepower is coming from its allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia. American officials insist they have a good idea where those weapons are going and which rebel groups are receiving them.
"We are very active in working with our partners to assess the situation ... that there be good vetting of who it's going to and that we compare notes on what we are seeing," Nuland said.
But Rogers suggests the United States is not getting anything close to the full picture from its Arab allies.
"Yes, we get information from them. Do we get it all? No. Do we have full knowledge of all the things they're doing, including where the money goes and where the weapons go? No."
Rogers argues that because the United States has taken a more "hands off" approach, American officials are not privy to all the conversations taking place, and thus do not have a complete view of who is providing what.
"Some of the streams of money we know about, some we don't. Some weapons streams we know a lot about, so we don't know anything about," he said.
A U.S. official, who would not speak for full attribution because of the sensitivity of the information, told CNN that arms are coming into Syria and ending up with extremist groups.
The New York Times reported Tuesday about a classified government report regarding this concern.
"There's no question that some of the weapons have gone to those we would describe as militants, or jihadists," the official said. "That's one of the thorniest issues right now, how difficult it is to delineate the specific affiliations of small groups of fighters."
The official explained the current thinking of the U.S. government is that some groups, such as the Liwa al-Tawheed Brigade, have received supplies from Qatar and Saudi Arabia but that those two nations are not the only sources for hardliners' weapons.
"For example," the official said, "the Farouq Brigade is well-armed. But it received a lot of its weapons from Lebanese militant groups, not Qatar or Saudi Arabia."
The State Department said tracking the flow of weapons is a high priority.
"This is a very very important issue right now, as we see an increasing trend of extremists trying to take advantage of the violence ... to try and hijack what the Syrian people want and deserve," Nuland said.
The issue has come up in the presidential campaign.
Republican nominee Mitt Romney has argued for a more aggressive approach in Syria, and promised to get heavy weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades into rebel hands.
"I'll work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values, and then ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad's tanks and helicopters and fighter jets," Romney told a crowd at the Virginia Military Institute this month.
Sharing heavy weapons
That would fit Rogers' call for the United States to exert a stronger leadership role in the Syrian crisis, but raises the possibility of rebel groups sharing heavy weapons with certain jihadist fighters who have become their allies.
The dual issues of weapons and alliances could have ramifications that extend well beyond the fight against Assad.
As some Syrian freedom fighters scrounge for weapons, there are unconfirmed reports that jihadists are stashing weapons for later.
"Those armed cells, those armed militias who overthrow the government want to have a stake in who replaces it," said Jane's Intelligence analyst Dave Hartwell.
He noted that, if the reports are true, it shows jihadists are already planning for what happens if and when Assad falls. "It shows a level of foresight that is perhaps missing from the opposition."
Rogers said extremists "are well-armed, and well-funded. I don't think that status would change after the fall of the regime. They are going to be there, and we will have to deal with them in some way, shape or form when this is all over."
Rogers said current intelligence suggests about one out of every four rebel groups leans toward extremist or jihadist views.
He said some groups are as large as 3,000 and others as small as 50 people. And he does not believe that 25% of all rebel fighters are extremists.
But Rogers warned with the way some of the partnerships between rebels and jihadists are coalescing, the United States has a very tight window to step in and exert a leadership role: perhaps as short as four to six weeks.
"I'm worried about the extremists developing a stature that when this thing falls, they are the ones standing up with the structure finance and weapons as they have today."