US officials say Assad could survive Syria
By Matthew Schofield - Mcclatchy Newspaper
March 10, 2012
WASHINGTON, — Months after the United
States sided with rebels against Syrian President
Bashar Assad, senior U.S. intelligence officials
acknowledged Friday that not only could Assad
survive the uprising, but also that they couldn't
say with confidence that the opposition represents a
majority of the Syrian people.
While the officials said they believed that the odds
were against Assad remaining in power, they don't
expect anything approaching a quick resolution to a
conflict that began last year as peaceful protests
and have since morphed into a near-civil war.
"Our sense is right now he's very much in charge,"
of their military operations, one U.S. official
said. Another noted, "He (Assad) might survive
this." The officials spoke on condition of anonymity
because of the sensitivity of the information.
The intelligence assessments run counter to a
message voiced with confidence for months by senior
administration officials including President Barack
Obama, who told a White House news conference on
Tuesday that "ultimately, this dictator will fall."
Perhaps more fundamentally, the analysis calls into
question an American foreign policy that has been
based on the idea that Assad's regime is overwhelmed
In particular, the officials made it clear that the
United States does not have a clear picture of
what's going on inside Syria. For instance, while
there have been some seemingly high-profile
defections from the Syrian military and government -
including, this week, a man who described himself as
a deputy oil minister - Assad's regime has stayed
mostly intact, which could suggest that the level of
popular discontent with the dictator isn't as high
On Friday, Turkey said that three high-ranking
Syrian military officers - two generals and a
colonel - had defected. Neither these nor the oil
official, however, were key players, the U.S.
The Syrian conflict is seen as a struggle of Assad's
Alawite Shiite minority against the majority Sunni
population. But the officials said that while the
military's leadership ranks are largely Alawite, the
bulk of the soldiers carrying out orders are Sunni
conscripts. Despite that, the military remains
cohesive, they said.
One official noted that other minority Syrian
populations - Christians, Kurds and Druze - "have
not abandoned the regime yet."
They said fear of retribution against the families
of defectors might be a prime reason why more
officials aren't jumping to the opposition. Another
could be that many soldiers believe Assad's claims
that they're fighting an opposition made up largely
of foreign fighters and terrorists. The officials
said that three high-profile suicide attacks aimed
at regime targets carried the mark of al-Qaida in
McClatchy Newspapers was first to report last month
that al-Qaida's Iraqi affiliate had exploited the
chaos in neighboring Syria to stage the attacks, but
the extent of links between the militant group and
the rebel force known as the Free Syrian Army
remains unclear. The officials said that the Free
Syrian Army clearly has been infiltrated by some
number of al-Qaida forces - likely using the same
routes and network that it used for years to transit
fighters from Syria into Iraq - but that the rebel
army wanted nothing to do with the terror
Pentagon officials and independent experts also have
pointed out that the opposition remains disorganized
and split by conflicting agendas. A leading member
of the main,www.ekurd.net
Turkey-based opposition group, the Syrian National
Council, said that frictions were growing because
new defectors were jockeying among themselves for
key positions on the council.
"There are internal divisions within the SNC," said
the council member, who didn't want to be named
discussing the council's internal problems.
"The main problem is SNC has gotten ... bigger each
and every day. We started with 80 people. Now we are
340 people, and every high-ranking official
defecting from the Syrian regime wants to have a big
role," he said.
For now, Iran is the primary supporter of Assad's
regime, supplying weapons as well as helping it shut
down and monitor social media and protests. The U.S.
officials said they believed the arms being supplied
were mostly light weapons such as assault rifles and
ammunition and rocket-propelled grenades.
The Syrian army could continue bombarding opposition
enclaves for "a long, long time" with current
artillery supplies, one official said.
"This was an army built for a ground war with
Israel," one official said. "They have approached
that level of commitment" in terms of its military
arsenal and personnel in the fight against the
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Ipek
Yezdani contributed to this report from Istanbul.)
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