WASHINGTON – Top U.S. officials all the way up to President Obama are predicting the Syrian regime's days are numbered, but recent U.S. intelligence reports suggest that the Syrian leader commands a formidable army that is unlikely to turn on him, an inner circle that has stayed loyal and a Syrian elite that still supports his rule.
While intelligence officials would not be drawn on a timeline for the regime's possible collapse, their sober assessment hinted at a continuing campaign lasting several months, if not longer, with an inevitable continued loss of life. For the past year, the Syria's government has tried to crush a popular uprising inspired by the Arab Spring movements. The U.N. says more than 7,500 people have been killed.
A worsening economy could ultimately drive Syrian President Bashar Assad from power, with food prices recently doubling, unemployment rising and refined fuel products running out. But so far, there have been no mass protests over food or fuel shortages nor any discernible slowing in military activity because of a lack of supplies, according to three senior intelligence officials, speaking Friday on condition of anonymity to provide a snapshot of recent intelligence reports and analysis of the crisis.
Satellite imagery shows a new ferociousness to the embattled regime's attacks, including artillery shelling of multiple mosques, schools, playgrounds and a hospital, in the Sunni neighborhood of Homs, the officials said. The continuing violence, they said, has driven some 2,000 refugees over the Lebanese border and displaced up to 200,000 more Syrians inside the country.
It also has spurred new Syrian defections, including by the deputy oil minister, and the reported departure of two army generals, though none of them, nor previous defectors are regarded as part of Assad's inner circle. And not all of the defectors have joined the opposition. Nor are there indications of the broader Syrian elite abandoning their support for their leader. That includes not just Assad's Allawite clan, but the minority Christians, Kurds and Druze, who all fear persecution under the possible rise of a post-Assad Sunni Islamic regime.
Asked about his approach to Syria this week, President Obama called the bloodshed heartbreaking and inexcusable, but he made clear that he does not favor military action now. "The notion that the way to solve every one of these problems is to deploy our military, that hasn't been true in the past and it won't be true now," Obama said. He suggested Assad will leave without an outside military shove, but he gave no indication when.
"We are going to continue to work on this project with other countries," Obama said at a White House news conference. "And it is my belief that, ultimately, this dictator will fall, as dictators in the past have fallen."
On Friday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reiterated that the goal is an international pressure campaign against Syria. He claimed that sanctions and such diplomatic pressure are already "having a significant impact on Assad" and weakening his regime. He gave no estimate of how long that might take to succeed.
Intelligence analysts have concluded that the disorganized Syrian opposition is providing little challenge to the regime, with political leaders of the Syrian National Council proving more apt at picking ego-driven fights among themselves than working as a team. The self-styled Syrian Free Army is made up of a ragtag "Star Wars" bar of disparate local groups, lightly armed with rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and homemade improvised explosive devices. The fighters arm themselves by seizing weapons from military warehouses, staging raids on army outposts or smuggling the weapons in. The rebel army has thus far rejected the political leadership of the rebel political movement.
Arrayed against them is a highly professional, 330,000-man army plus reserves that was built and trained to invade Israel. While under strain, it is nowhere near collapse, the officials said.
One reason for the relatively few defections could be that departing troops would not only be out of a job and a country, but their extended families would be at risk of retaliation. In addition to troops, the army has 4,500 tanks and some 500 aircraft, including armed helicopters. While intelligence officials have no proof those helicopters have been used in the urban fighting that has so far typified the revolt, they say the deadly aircraft could be called in if the fighting moves to rural areas.
Setting up a no-fly zone to help the rebels would mean challenging Syria's formidable air defenses. Adding details to testimony by top government officials this week, the intelligence officials said Syria has hundreds of anti-aircraft artillery batteries and thousands of shoulder-fired missiles, making up for their lack of technical sophistication through sheer numbers.
Syria also has extensive chemical and biological weapons stockpiles, at more than two dozen locations, other officials said. The U.S. intelligence officials would not confirm that number but said they believe the Syrian military is currently in control of all those sites. While the U.S. does not believe Syria will employ the weapons in the revolt, intelligence officials fear a worst-case scenario in which the regime falls and the weapons fall into the hands of the few hundred Al Qaeda operatives thought to be operating within the country. Iran continues to aid the Assad regime, now providing small arms and other weapons. Initially, the Iranians provided nonlethal aid, from crowd-suppressing equipment like tear gas and water cannons to technology to jam cellphones and block or monitor the social networking sites rebels would use to organize demonstrations.
Iran also historically provided Syria with unmanned aerial vehicles that it is using for surveillance as well as intercepting phone and radio transmissions.
Syrian leader Assad continues to see himself as a hero of the Arab world, besieged by what he believes is a foreign extremist plot to unseat him. That could be why the Al Qaeda operatives inside Syria have stayed relatively quiet, rather than laying claim to a series of sophisticated bombings in Damascas and Aleppo -- because they don't want to give Assad ideological ammunition to rally his people against the extremists he has long claimed were behind the entire revolt.