Syria's Armed Opposition No Threat To Regime, Says U.S., Which Plans To Provide Nonlethal Aid to Civilians


WASHINGTON -- On the one-year anniversary of the uprisings in Syria, U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that the armed resistance is not able to mount a credible military threat to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, senior U.S. intelligence officials told The Huffington Post.

The powerful, Russian-armed Syrian army remains firmly in control behind the Assad regime, senior intelligence officials say.

That assessment underlies the Obama administration's reluctance to become more actively involved in the uprising against Assad that began on March 15, 2011. After a year of sporadic and inconclusive violence against the regime, the White House has flatly ruled out providing arms to the opposition and instead is focusing on coordinating international pressure against the Assad regime and providing humanitarian relief.

The White House has authorized providing medical supplies and nonlethal equipment to civilian Syrian groups that would transport the supplies, according to a source close to the administration's deliberations on Syria.

But the failure of the armed opposition to take advantage of defections from the Syrian armed forces or coordinate its actions into a meaningful security challenge of the regime appears to leave the United States and other critics of the regime without a long-term strategy for ousting Assad. By contrast, in Libya last year, a relatively well-organized and armed opposition eventually drew Western military support, and the country's strongman, Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown and killed last fall.

Syria ranked high on the agenda when President Barack Obama met Wednesday with British Prime Minister David Cameron. "Right now we are focused on getting humanitarian aid to those in need," Obama said after the White House meetings. International economic, political and diplomatic pressure is becoming stronger, Obama said, vowing, "Assad will leave power. It's not a question of if, but when."

Cameron agreed on the nonmilitary approach. "What we want is the quickest way to stop the killing -- that is, through transition, rather than through revolution or civil war," he said at a White House news conference.

White House officials reiterated this week that sending arms to the opposition has been ruled out. "We believe it could heighten and prolong the violence in Syria," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

Brutal onslaughts by the Syrian military against mostly unarmed civilians have captured the world's attention, most recently the shelling by artillery and tanks of urban neighborhoods in Homs and Idlib.

Clearly, Syrian civilians are being bludgeoned by the Assad regime. More than 8,000 Syrians have died in assaults by Syrian forces, according to the United Nations. Some 200,000 Syrians have been forced from their homes and an additional 30,000 Syrians have fled across the borders into Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, the United Nations reported.

A senior U.S. intelligence official told The Huffington Post that the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups are able to mount only sporadic hit-and-run attacks and anti-regime demonstrations in a handful of mostly urban neighborhoods and isolated villages.

Other intelligence officials have said despite the appearance of an increasingly broad-based armed resistance, the rebels have been unable to coordinate their attacks or work in concert with Syrian civilian opposition groups outside the country. The intelligence officials spoke on condition that they not be identified by name or agency.

Reports suggesting widespread attacks by armed Syrian rebels are exaggerated, these officials said.

Reuters reported Wednesday, for instance, that fighting "raged unabated across Syria in recent days." Reports from Syrian opposition groups and others do show fighting on Wednesday in seven of Syria's 14 provinces, suggesting a thriving nationwide insurgency.

A closer examination, however, shows a different picture. The violence reported in the province of Hama, for instance, consisted of shelling by Syrian forces on Tuesday in three neighborhoods in the provincial capital, Hama. The provinces of Aleppo and Daraa were listed as sites of fighting; one person was killed in each provinces, the opposition groups reported. In Raqqah province in northern Syria, one person died in a skirmish.

All together, the opposition groups reported 46 people were killed on Tuesday.

In one typical engagement, opposition forces claimed in January to have seized the mountain town of Zabadani, some 25 miles outside of Damascus. Several days later the Syrian army arrived and retook the town.

When the opposition is able to operate against the Syrian army, "it's small-arms attacks with a few [rocket-propelled grenades] and pretty widely scattered,'' the senior intelligence official said.

According to another intelligence source, anti-regime violence is confined to local neighborhoods, "posing little threat to central authority.''

U.S. intelligence officials said defections from the Syrian army continue, but it is not clear that defecting soldiers are joining the opposition; they may be simply deserting.

Russia, Syria's main weapons patron, vowed this week to continue arms sales to the Assad regime, delivering an arsenal that ranges from small arms and ammunition to sophisticated antiair missile systems, according to the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Against the disorganized and ill-equipped opposition, Syria's armed forces "remain a viable, cohesive and effective force,'' U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, the Defense Intelligence Agency's director, told the House Intelligence Committee last month. The regime "is cohesive," he added.

Even though the Assad regime has fended off the challenge so far, its long-term future is in doubt, some critics say. In a recent assessment, the International Crisis Group, an independent think tank, wrote that Assad's days are numbered.

The regime "continues to enjoy substantial military superiority over the opposition,'' the International Crisis Group reported. "Its conduct on the ground -- including excessive use of force by regular troops … horrendous treatment of detainees and indiscriminate punishment of entire swathes of the population -- precludes even a semblance of normalization."

Given enough time, the International Crisis Group said, "the regime might be able to destroy the urban and social fabric of entire neighbourhoods, as it appears to have done in parts of Homs. But that will only reinvigorate protests and armed resistance elsewhere."

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