By Barbara Starr
U.S. intelligence officials are describing the fighting in Syria as currently a stalemate between the regime and opposition forces, but those officials continue to believe Bashar al-Assad will eventually be forced from power.
"It doesn't seem either side is in a position to prevail or dominate," said a senior U.S. intelligence official. "We are looking at a protracted conflict."
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions.
Officials are describing a "seesaw battle" between regime and opposition forces. The opposition forces have improved their tactics - using fresh supplies of small arms, they have increasingly attacked government checkpoint and facilities; and engaging in hit-and-run operations, according to the intelligence officials. But the regime is using brutal militias loyal to al-Assad to carry out atrocities, and is using so-called "combined arms" strategies of attacking with artillery and helicopters.
The officials said the intelligence community has looked at alternatives that could emerge in Syria such as civil war or increased sectarian violence. They suggest its also possible Sunni elites and Alawi Christians could join forces in an effort to "save themselves" if Syria begins to implode. At the moment there is no evidence minorities such as the Christians, Druze or Kurds are joining the opposition in larger numbers. The U.S. believes the opposition forces now numbers between 10,000 and 15,000.
Even though the officials characterized the current state of affairs as a stalemate, it's still believed al-Assad will be forced out of office, officials say. The officials emphasized they see overall a "downward trend" for the regime, in line with the White House view that at the end of the day al-Assad will leave office.
They say they simply cannot put a time frame on it, but they say the Syrian government is facing a much broader opposition.
"It's hard for me to see how the regime could restore the status quo ante," one of the officials said.
As the opposition improves, the regime has stepped up its attacks, as evidenced by recent atrocities. The officials say the United States still "could be surprised" by a "misstep" from either side, but barring that, the U.S. belief is that the conflict simply will "continue for some period of time."
"Both sides seem to be girding for a long struggle. The regime still believes it can prevail, but at the same time opposition is preparing for a long fight," one official said.
As for the al-Assad government, U.S. intelligence officials said the regime inner circle and high-level government and military are still holding firm.
Al-Assad's government had an estimated $17 billion to $20 billion in foreign reserves when conflict began; U.S. officials don't know what the holdings are currently.
While fuel and food shortages continue throughout the country, the government is making sure troops are paid and provided for in order to maintain loyalty. For the population at large, U.S. officials do not believe the shortages have reached catastrophic levels, but Syrian civilians are having difficulty procuring essentials.