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."
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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 and doomed.
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 as perceived.
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. officials said.
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. Yet 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 Iraq.
McClatchy 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 organization.
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, 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, helping it shut down and monitor social media and protests as well as supplying weapons. The U.S. officials said they believed the arms being supplied were mostly light weapons: small arms 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 rebels.
(McClatchy special correspondent Ipek Yezdani contributed to this article from Istanbul, Turkey.)
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