WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. intelligence officials said Tuesday that Syria's military remains loyal despite recent high-profile defections, while the opposition remains fragmented and unable to attack as a unified force, indicating a long, protracted conflict ahead.
The Syrian regime is maintaining troop loyalty by keeping paychecks coming even as food and fuel run out for the rest of the country, according to U.S. intelligence officials who briefed reporters on the Syrian conflict. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to provide the sensitive information.
Some higher ranked military officers have defected in recent days, including at least one general — among the thousands of troops who have deserted. But none of them is considered a key member of the military or key to the regime's survival, the officials said.
There are more people angry with the regime, but also a core group fighting harder for its survival, leaving rebels and the Syrian regime locked in a "seesaw battle," unable to knock each other out, setting the stage for a long fight that could slide slowly into civil war, the officials said.
The officials sketched worst case scenarios such as the embattled regime of Bashar Assad ruling with a few key loyalists, or Assad killed or exiled by his own forces, leaving the country and its massive weapons stores with no clear government.
The Syrian conflict has gone on for 15 months, an outgrowth of Arab Spring revolts. Syrian activists say more than 14,000 people have been killed since March 2011.
Assad's regime is running out of hard cash, food and fuel, as the crackdown on the revolt leads to continued international sanctions. The head of the NATO military alliance on Tuesday termed as unacceptable Syria's shoot-down of a Turkish military jet after it strayed into Syrian airspace, an event likely to trigger further censure.
The opposition remains determined, even attacking the outskirts of the capital Damascus on Monday. But it is fragmented geographically, "just a lot of groups operating in their own areas," and still unable or as yet unwilling to work together to attack the army as a unified force, the officials said.
When the rebels gained territory during a cease-fire last year, the Syrian army picked up the pace and drove them out of their strongholds in the northwest, combining helicopter strafing runs and with ground assaults, the better to hit the lightly armed, mostly urban guerrilla force.
In turn, opposition fighters have learned to stage hit-and-run attacks on targets like checkpoints, harassing the regime's troops at the edges, instead of taking on the Syrian army's full might.
Russia, a longtime military supplier to the Assad regime, has over the years provided Syria with weapons, from sophisticated anti-air defense systems to helicopter gunships. Iran continues to provide small arms and communications systems, the officials said.
The rebels have received AK-47 rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and even some anti-tank rocket systems, but not the portable rockets that could shoot down Syrian military aircraft, the officials said. Most of their supplies come from sympathizers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the officials said.
The regime has been careful not to order the majority-Sunni army to attack rebel Sunni neighborhoods, instead relying on the "shabiha" militias to take on those roles, as they did in the massacre in Houla in May, where more than 100 people, mostly women and children, were slaughtered in their homes.
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