By Adam Levine
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad will not leave or change course short of a coup, mostly because of the president's need to "emulate his father," U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Thursday.
Clapper said the Syrian opposition, while mostly local, has been infiltrated by al Qaeda elements, maybe without the opposition knowing about it.
His comments about the situation in Syria were the most detailed assessment to date of the U.S. intelligence read on Syria, and came during testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee about threats to the United States.
Last week, CNN's Barbara Starr reported that the United States had intercepted communications of operatives of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) who are now in Syria. U.S. intelligence suggests a small groups of AQI operatives have been "pushed into Syria" by their commanders and are able to carry out intelligence and reconnaissance against Syrian targets and subsequent bombing attacks.
In describing the opposition, Clapper said it is very fractured, "not a national movement," comprised of both those from the local population and "exiles and the like." The director of national intelligence said the Free Syrian Army is feuding internally about who will lead it and in "another disturbing phenomenon," has been infiltrated by al Qaeda. He said the Free Syrian Army is made up of disparate groups with no centralized "command and control."
"The opposition groups in many cases may not be aware they (al Qaeda operatives) are there," Clapper told the committee. He said recent bombings in Aleppo and Damascus against security and intelligence buildings "had all the earmarks of an al Qaeda-like attack."
"We believe that al Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria. Complicating all of this is - and this is another contrast with Libya, where we had one or two or three sites that had chemical warfare components - is a much more complex issue in Syria, which has an extensive network of such installations," Clapper observed.
Clapper said the al Qaeda infiltration will undoubtedly affect discussion about offering aid and assistance to the opposition.
The presence of al Qaeda and lack of clarity about what will happen ultimately in Syria has raised concerns about the country's extensive chemical weapons stockpiles.
The United States has increasing concerns about the security of Syria's chemical weapons, according to a defense official who did not want to be identified while discussing intelligence matters.
The official says while the US "continues to monitor the overall situation in Syria," there are "ongoing discussions specific to the location of, and security around, the various components of their chemical weapons program."
The official says United States is paying particular attention to the possibility of the weapons falling into the hands of extremists, in the event the government loses control of certain areas or splinters among itself. The cities of Hama, Homs, al-Safira and the port city of Latakia are all believed to house production facilities. There are additional storage sites and research centers around the country as well.
Clapper said Thursday there is particular concern should the al Assad regime fall.
"There would be kind of a vacuum that would lend itself to extremists operating in Syria, which is particularly troublesome in light of the large network of chemical warfare, CBW (chemical-biological weapons), weapon storage facilities and other related facilities that there are in Syria," Clapper said.
The director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, said the extremists elements appear already to be in country.
"But what we haven't seen so far and what we have not assessed yet, is whether there would be what I would call, a clarion call to outsiders coming in, to augment. We haven't seen much of that up to this time, so basically the team that's on the ground is playing with what it has," Burgess said at the same hearing.
Recently, the head of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a statement calling for support of those rising in opposition of Assad.
In speaking of the regime, Clapper said there is little indication al-Assad will stop his crackdown on the opposition and at the moment all signs point to the regime holding together its support internally.
Clapper played psychologist in assessing al Assad's true motives for holding steady.
"Assad himself probably, because of his psychological need to emulate his father, sees no other option, but to continue to try to crush the opposition," Clapper said. Hafez al-Assad, President Bashar al-Assad's father and predecessor, ruled Syria for three decades before his death in 2000.
Clapper detailed how the U.S. intelligence community sees the state of Syria's regime. He said while there have been desertions, about "80% of their maneuver units (have taken part in) assaults on the civilian population."
The economy has taken "some hits" and is "going south," including spiking gas and food prices, Clapper said. There are also signs that senior members of al Assad's regime are making contingency plans to evacuate and move their families and finances.
Still, Clapper said, "to this point they've held together" and said a continued stalemate is likely.
"Short of a coup or something like that, Assad will hang in there and continue to do as he's done," including continued massacre of civilians, Clapper said.
Clapper also noted Iran has a presence in Syria.
Iran is working to prop up al Assad's government and is sending "help in terms of trainers, advisers and equipment, mostly riot suppression equipment," Clapper said.