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Loyal army, inner circle still back Assad, say U.S. intelligence officials

WASHINGTON — Despite the Obama administration's predictions that the Syrian government's days are numbered, recent U.S. intelligence reports suggest President Bashar Assad commands a formidable army that is unlikely to turn on him, an inner circle that has stayed loyal and an elite class that still supports his rule.

The assessment hinted at a continuing campaign lasting several months, if not longer, with more Syrians dying. For the past year, Assad's government has tried to crush a popular uprising inspired by the Arab Spring movements. The United Nations says more than 7,500 people have died.

Over time, worsening economic conditions could threaten Assad's hold on power. Food prices recently doubled, unemployment is rising and refined fuel products are running out.

But no mass protests over food or fuel shortages have broken out, and there hasn't been any discernible slowing in military activity because of a lack of supplies, the Associated Press reported, citing three unnamed intelligence officials. They spoke to the AP on Friday on condition of anonymity to provide a snapshot of reports and an analysis of the crisis.

Satellite imagery shows a new ferocity to the government's attacks, including artillery shelling of mosques, schools, playgrounds and a hospital, in the Sunni neighborhood of Homs, AP cited the officials as saying.

Assad's forces mounted a new assault Saturday on the northern region of Idlib, one of the centers of the uprising against the president. The military operation has raised fears of a new all-out offensive like the siege last month that captured Homs.

The army's campaigns have driven 2,000 refugees over the Lebanese border, displaced up to 200,000 more Syrians and spurred some, including the deputy oil minister, to defect, while two army generals are reported to have departed.

But none of the defectors thus far is regarded as belonging to Assad's inner circle, not all who have abandoned him have joined the opposition, and there are no indications of a broader pattern of elites pulling their support for him. That includes not just Assad's Allawite clan, but the minority Christians, Kurds and Druze, who all fear persecution under a possible Sunni Islamic rule.

President Barack Obama said last week that the bloodshed was heartbreaking and inexcusable, but he made clear that he does not favor military action now against Assad.

"The notion that the way to solve every one of these problems is to deploy our military, that hasn't been true in the past and it won't be true now," Obama said. He suggested Assad will leave without an outside military shove, but he gave no indication when.

Loyal army, inner circle still back Assad, say U.S. intelligence officials 03/10/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 10, 2012 8:36pm]
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