Last Updated: Sat Mar 10, 2012 11:00 am (KSA) 08:00 am (GMT)

Syrian president in control, with ‘formidable’ power: U.S. intelligence officials

A child holds up a placard during a protest against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad after Friday prayers at Al-Qusour in Homs. The placard reads: “To the heroic Syrian people, do not expect anything from the United Nations. We learned our lesson.” (Reuters)
A child holds up a placard during a protest against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad after Friday prayers at Al-Qusour in Homs. The placard reads: “To the heroic Syrian people, do not expect anything from the United Nations. We learned our lesson.” (Reuters)

Senior U.S. intelligence officials described Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as firmly in control and willing to unleash one of the region’s formidable militaries to secure position, a newspaper reported on Saturday.

The senior officials, who spoke to The Washington Post on condition of anonymity, said that Assad’s inner circle is “remaining steadfast,” with little indication that senior figures in the regime are inclined to defect, despite U.S. government’s efforts and its allies to impose sanctions and other measures to create a wave of defections.

On Thursday, leader of the opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), Burhan Ghalioun, welcomed the defection of the highest civilian official, Syria’s deputy oil minister. Contrary to the U.S. senior officials’ accounts, Ghalioun said that he expects more government officials and politicians to defect.

Assad in charge

Assad “is very much in charge,” a senior U.S. intelligence official responsible for tracking the conflict told the newspaper, adding that Assad and his inner circle seem convinced that the rebellion is being driven by external foes and that they are equipped to withstand all but a large-scale military intervention.

“That leadership is going to fight very hard,” one of the officials said. Over the long term, “the odds are against them,” he said, “but they are going to fight very hard.”

The intelligence officials described Syria as a formidable military power, with 330,000 active-duty soldiers, surveillance drones supplied by Iran and a dense network of air defense installations that would make it difficult for the United States or other powers to establish a no-fly zone.

“This is an army that was built for a land war with the Israelis,” said another official. After the regime hesitated to attack civilian population centers earlier in the conflict, its “restraint . . . has been lifted,” the official added.

Meanwhile, the officials described the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as a loosely organized group with few links to the political opposition. They said there is an estimated of 10,000 to 20,000 soldiers who have defected, form the bulk of FSA.

According to them, the gravest assault against Assad regime was by Al-Qaeda, and that the Islamist militant group is trying to infiltrate quietly into the opposition.

Ghalioun on Friday said that SNC is receiving financial support and weapons from foreign governments. “The priority now is to break the killing arm of the Syrian regime and topple Bashar al-Assad and the militia that is now ruling Syria,” he added.

His announcement came amid an international atmosphere that shuns any military intervention in Syria even by countries that called on Assad to cede power.

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