Syrian cease-fire violations deepen gloom over options for ousting Assad

Western hopes for salvaging a nearly four-week-old cease-fire in Syria have all but evaporated, as new assessments raise fresh doubts about the prospects for the U.N.-brokered accord and the chances for removing the country’s repressive leadership in the near term, diplomats and intelligence officials say.

Even as U.N. officials tout a declining death toll and increased numbers of international monitors in the country, reports from inside Syria point to a determined, but lower-profile, effort by President Bashar ­al-Assad to crush remaining pockets of opposition in defiance of international agreements, the officials said.

That effort in recent days has included quietly rounding up hundreds of university students in the country’s largest city, Aleppo, and the stabbing deaths of several suspected opposition figures by pro-Assad hit squads, U.S. officials said. Anti-government activists reported renewed shelling by government tanks on Friday in the city of Douma, near Damascus, as well as snipers firing at protesters from rooftops.

Intelligence assessments, meanwhile, show scant progress by Assad toward implementing any of the six steps of the U.N. peace plan he nominally accepted in March. Under the accord, the Syrian government was to withdraw troops and heavy weapons from Syrian cities and allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians in hard-hit areas.

“None of the six points are being honored,” said a senior administration official privy to internal U.S. assessments of the 14-month-old uprising. “The fact that there appear to be fewer deaths [in recent days] is a good thing, but so far, this is far from a success.”

White House shifts stance

Assad’s refusal to honor his commitments is behind a pronounced shift in the Obama administration’s stance on the peace plan in recent days. While stopping short of calling the accord a failure, White House officials are suggesting publicly and privately that it is time to consider a new approach.

“If the regime’s intransigence continues, the international community is going to have to admit defeat,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Thursday. Referring to continued violence by pro-regime forces, Carney added: “It is clear, and we will not deny that plan has not been succeeding thus far.”

Carney’s comments contrasted with a more positive assessment Friday by U.N. officials, who insisted that the peace plan developed by Kofi Annan, a former U.N. secretary general who is serving as the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria, remains on track.

“A crisis that has been going on for over a year is not going to be resolved in a day or a week,” Annan’s spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, told reporters in Geneva. He pointed to U.N. efforts to triple the number of truce monitors in the country, from about 50 to 150 or even 300 in coming weeks, and noted that Syria has pulled back some of the tanks and other heavy weapons that Assad has used to pound opposition strongholds.

“There are no big signs of compliance on the ground. There are small signs of compliance,” Fawzi said. “Some heavy weapons have been withdrawn. Some heavy weapons remain. Some violence has receded, some violence continues. And that is not satisfactory.”

U.S. and European officials have accused Assad of using the cease-fire as a delaying tactic, allowing him more time to root out the opposition and resupply his forces. The few observers inside the country since mid-April have documented violations of the cease-fire by both sides, though the daily death toll has dropped from as many as 100 to about 20, according to U.S. officials who track the violence. U.N. officials estimate that as many as 9,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011.

Assad’s ability to continue the crackdown in the face of sanctions and international condemnation has led Western and Middle Eastern intelligence agencies to revise their assessments for how long his regime can survive. While they are confident that Assad will eventually fall — an outcome viewed as inevitable as the country’s economy hurtles toward collapse — many analysts now predict that the regime will survive into 2013, barring a surprise development such as a military revolt or assassination. The gloomier assessments are predicated on the belief that the country’s fragmented opposition will have no significant outside help, other than money, emergency aid and perhaps light weapons from Arab neighbors.

A more confident Assad

In interviews, intelligence officials from two neighboring Muslim countries said they saw a more confident Assad consolidating his recent military wins and preparing to dig in, fully expecting that he can outlast both the rebels and his international opponents.

“Our view now is that Assad will survive 2012 unless there’s a big surprise,” said one of the officials, who agreed to discuss his country’s intelligence assessments on the condition that neither his name nor country be revealed. “He has cleaned up Homs and Hama. Damascus is quiet. The Druze and Christians haven’t turned against him. Even the flow of refugees we’re seeing confirms that he is succeeding.”

A second official described Assad as “more confident because he feels he is in control.”

The security forces and elite military units have remained loyal to Assad so far, faithfully snuffing out pockets of resistance, the official said.

Limited supply of currency

Like Assad himself, the loyalist forces rely for financial support on Syria’s dwindling cushion of hard-currency reserves, which is being used to finance the assault on rebels. While those reserves are emptying out quickly, the accounts appear sufficient to keep the army supplied for months, the second official said.

“Eventually, Assad will leave, but it will take more time and more blood,” the second official said.

Current and former U.S. officials largely share the assessment that Assad’s removal is far from imminent. But some expressed optimism that the apparent failure of the cease-fire could be a clarifying event that could lead to stronger action by the international community. Having secured Russian and Chinese support for the cease-fire, Obama administration officials are expected to press Moscow and Beijing to increase pressure on Assad by backing an arms embargo and other punitive measures.

Mona Yacoubian, a former State Department official and consultant on the Middle East, said Russia is key to any strategy for punishing an Assad regime that until now has had few incentives for honoring the terms of the cease-fire.

“The question is whether the Annan plan, and the consensus it embodies, can now be leveraged to bring Russia and China along on the international effort to exert consequences on the Syria government,” said Yacoubian, a senior adviser on the Middle East for the Washington-based Stimson Center. “If those consequences included a withdrawal of Russian support for Syria, that could be truly significant.”

Joby Warrick joined the Post’s national staff in 1996. He has covered national security, intelligence and the Middle East, and currently writes about the environment.
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