The U.S. military intelligence agency warned the Obama administration early in the Syrian uprising that dictator Bashar al-Assad would be able to hold onto power for years even in the face of widespread opposition, the deputy head of the Defense Intelligence Agency said.
The DIA predicted Assad would remain in power until at least the start of 2013, a classified assessment more pessimistic than the early public statements by administration officials.
David Shedd, No. 2 in the Defense Intelligence Agency, said yesterday that the Syrian civil war is now likely to continue for years, whatever Assad’s fate. The country faces the prospect of “unfathomable violence” and growing power there by Islamic radicals, including those allied with al-Qaeda, he said.
“My concern is that it can go on for a long time, as in many, many months to multiple years,” he said, speaking at the Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colorado. “And the civilian casualties, the enormous flow of refugees and the dislocation and so forth and the human suffering associated with it will only increase in time.’‘
The United Nations estimates that more than 93,000 people have died in Syria’s civil war, which began with peaceful protests in March 2011. The fighting has sent hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing into neighboring countries such as Lebanon and Jordan.
Shedd said he was among intelligence officials who spoke up to say that it was unlikely the Assad regime would collapse any earlier than the start of 2013.
Administration officials didn’t share that kind of timeline when speaking publicly about the inevitability of Assad’s downfall. In February 2012, President Barack Obama skirted the time element by saying that the fall of the regime was not a matter of if, but of when.
Shedd yesterday didn’t publicly predict whether Assad would remain in power or be forced out, perhaps fleeing to continue the fight from an enclave held by loyalists.
“I think if Bashar Assad were to succeed, he will be a more ruthless leader who will live with a legacy of tens of thousands of his civilians killed under him,” Shedd said. “If he loses, and let’s pretend goes to an enclave inside there, I think there will be ongoing civil war for years to come.’‘
His comments reflect the kind of dire outlook being presented to Obama, who has been reluctant to have the U.S. drawn more deeply into the conflict. Shedd said that, absent increased outside involvement to shift the course of events in Syria, the war will settle into a deadly stalemate.
Shedd described what has become an open-ended sectarian conflict between Syrian Sunnis and Shiites, fueled by outside players such as Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia and al-Qaeda. Sunni Persian Gulf nations, the U.S., U.K. and France are providing aid to the opposition. Russia supports the Syrian government.
There are 1,200 opposition factions in Syria, which highlights what has been the administration’s concern about being able to sort out secular moderates from radical Islamists for aid, Shedd said. The radicals, such as the al-Nusra Front, are the most effective opposition fighters, he said.
“It’s very clear that over the last two years they have grown in size, they’ve grown in capability and ruthlessly have grown in effectiveness,” he said of the radical Sunni Islamist elements of the opposition. “Their ability to take the fight to the regime and Hezbollah in a very direct way has been, among those opposition groups, the most effective one.”
In recent weeks, fighting has broken out between radical and mainstream elements of the Sunni-dominated opposition as they compete for power in a country increasingly splintered among rival factions.
On the other side, Assad’s allies, Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, appear to be fully committed to ensuring the survival of his regime, Shedd said. Syria is a key ally for Iran and a gateway for its shipments of arms to Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which both the U.S. and Israel regard as a terrorist group.
“I do not believe that Iran feels it can lose that territory,” Shedd said.
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