Assad Hold on Power Tenuous: U.S. Intelligence Official

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad retains only a “tenuous hold” on power after two years of armed strife as opposition forces have grown more effective, according to the Pentagon’s top military intelligence official.

Assad’s government “maintains the military advantage -- particularly in firepower and air superiority,” and his inner circle “appears to be largely cohesive,” Defense Intelligence Agency Director Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn said in testimony prepared for delivery later today to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Still, the government “continues to struggle with defections, morale problems and an overall inability to decisively defeat the opposition,” Flynn said in the remarks obtained by Bloomberg News. He also said the Syrian military “is likely stretched thin by constant operations.”

The conflict in Syria, which began in 2011 with peaceful protests, has escalated into a civil war that has taken at least 70,000 lives and forced hundreds of thousands to flee to neighboring countries. The U.S. and regional allies, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have backed the rebels fighting to oust Assad while sometimes disagreeing about how to help them.

No opposition group has been able to “unite the diverse groups behind a strategy for replacing the regime,” Flynn said.

In a television interview late yesterday, Assad reiterated that his government was engaged in a fight with Muslim extremists who enjoyed western support.

‘Heart of U.S.’

“Just as the West financed al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in its beginnings and paid dearly for it later, today it’s supporting it in Syria, Libya and other locations, and will pay a price later in the heart of Europe and in the heart of the United States,” Assad told Syria’s al-Ikhbariya TV.

Flynn provides his assessment of Syria’s internal situation the day after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who’s due to travel to the Middle East on April 20, appeared before the Armed Services Committee and heard lawmakers push for a more assertive U.S. role in the conflict.

Hagel told the lawmakers yesterday that U.S. military action supporting Syrian opposition forces is an “option of last resort” that could entangle the U.S. in a lengthy conflict.

‘Proxy War’

“Military intervention at this point could hinder humanitarian operations,” Hagel said. “It could embroil the United States in a significant, lengthy and uncertain military commitment,” strain international alliances and “have the unintended consequences of bringing the United States into a broader regional conflict or proxy war.”

While pledging “to find some way we can do more” to assist Syrian rebels, Hagel said President Barack Obama hasn’t asked him for recommendations on military action.

“I believe that the time has come for the United States to intensify the military pressure on Assad,” Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the committee’s Democratic chairman, told Hagel.

Flynn in his prepared testimony said the opposition has gained control of territory in eastern Syria and along the northern border with Turkey. Coordination between opposition groups has improved, “however ties with external groups, including nominal Free Syrian Army leaders in Turkey are increasingly strained,” he said.

Committee leaders at yesterday’s hearing renewed calls for the creation of “safe zones” for rebels opposing Assad and for moving U.S. Patriot missile batteries in Turkey to the Syrian border.

Weapons Call

New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said last week he would press legislation to let the U.S. provide weapons to the Syrian opposition. Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, also called for more military assistance.

Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said deploying missile batteries would be insufficient to create viable safe zones because some control of the ground would be required. He said efforts to arm the rebels are complicated because the Syrian opposition is poorly organized and it’s unclear where weapons might end up.

The forces fighting Assad include the Islamist militia Jabhat al-Nusra, which has aligned itself with al-Qaeda and is designated a terrorist group by the U.S.

Missile Threat

Flynn in his testimony said Syria’s arsenal of conventional missiles is “mobile and can reach much of Israel and large portions of Iraq, Jordan and Turkey from sites well within the country.”

He said Russia has sold Syria a supersonic anti-ship cruise missile called the Yakhont, a weapon with a range of 300 kilometers that “poses a major threat to naval operations, particularly in the eastern Mediterranean.”

Hagel said he ordered the deployment last week of an Army unit to Jordan to assist Jordanian forces seeking to contain any violence along the border. He and Dempsey declined to say whether Assad’s forces used chemical weapons -- a step that Obama has warned would trigger a U.S. response.