By Barbara Starr
Despite reports of high-level defections of government and military officials, U.S. intelligence sees no signs of significant deterioration of support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by his inner circle, senior U.S. intelligence officials said Friday.
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The officials, who would speak only on the condition that their names not be used, said that to date, the defections have been of lower-level officials and those in the military. None of those defections, including the group of military officers who are reported to have defected this week, are close enough to al-Assad to truly make a difference, the senior intelligence officials said.
Al-Assad and his inner circle remain convinced that they are fighting a foreign-backed enemy, the officials said.
"This leadership is going to fight very hard," one official said. "Assad is very much in charge of how Syria is handling this."
The officials said that Syria's crumbling economy could be the president's Achilles' heel, noting that fuel and food prices are significantly higher and unemployment has nearly doubled since 2010.
Still, al-Assad's grip continues and the officials said they believe he is using unmanned aerial vehicles - or drones - to conduct targeting and collect overhead intelligence about opposition movements on the ground. The drones are both Syrian built and Iranian supplied. Iran has provided further aid as part of what the officials described as "all-in" support for al-Assad.
Iran has also provided small arms and assistance in helping the Syrian government use computer monitoring to rout out opposition using social media and other Internet tools. The intelligence officials described the assistance as similar to the tools used by Iran to suppress its own revolution. In addition, Iran has supplied riot control gear including tear gas agents, truncheons and water cannons.
Syria's military has its own capability to monitor and intercept communications, the officials said.
The officials showed declassified satellite images, released by the government on Friday, that they said show the heavy pounding some Syrian cities and towns have taken from Syrian artillery. The officials said indications of targeting of mosques and hospitals appeared to be the result of the Syrian military believing "insurgents" were hiding there, but they said that to some extent, these barrages are indiscriminate in crowded urban areas.
In noting that some estimates indicate that perhaps 500 people were killed in a neighborhood, one official said it was not possible to know to what extent the now empty streets indicate that people have actually fled.
This week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told a Senate hearing that he didn't think "there's any question that we're experiencing mass atrocities" in Syria.
When asked if it's possible that a mass atrocity will be uncovered there in the coming days, one of the intelligence officials said, "We are bracing for that possibility."
The intelligence officials also shared details about the significant air defense system that has been discussed as a deterrent for U.S. or coalition airstrikes. The Syrian system is massive, and the officials described it as "very dense." They said the Syrian air defenses include thousands of surface-to-air missiles, pieces of anti-aircraft artillery and radar. Much of it is fairly advanced digital gear, which is more difficult for U.S. aircraft to jam, they said.
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain has led the charge in calling for military intervention and has bristled at administration officials' suggestion that one reason for a hesitancy to intervene is the fractured nature of the Syrian opposition.
"I reject the argument that we, quote, 'don't know who they are,' " he said this week. "We spend a lot of money on defense, and we spend a lot of money on intelligence."
But the intelligence officials said that as military and other officials have said publicly, the opposition is fragmented, with many devoted to defending just their neighborhoods. Al Qaeda, the officials said, does appear to be trying to surreptitiously infiltrate the groups, in their own effort to oust al-Assad. The officials described the al Qaeda influx as a reversal of the network that ran insurgents from Syria into Iraq since 2003.
Another terrorist group, Hamas, which has been backed by the al-Assad regime, has packed up and almost completely left the country, the officials said, describing it as a significant development, given the years of support al-Assad has given the group.