In increasingly detailed strategy sessions over recent weeks, U.S. officials have urged rebels and Syrian political opposition leaders to resist sectarian reprisals if Assad’s government falls. Officials said they are endeavoring to help the rebels learn from U.S. mistakes in Iraq, where the dissolution of the army and other institutions unleashed further turmoil.
“You can’t have a complete dissolution of that [system] because those institutions will be needed in a political transition,” said one U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because discussions with Syria’s fragmented opposition are sensitive.
“What you need to prevent is the de-Baathification of the country,” the official said, referring to Assad’s ruling Arab nationalist movement. A Baath offshoot also ruled in Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
Underlying the widening discussion of post-Assad politics is growing confidence among U.S. officials that Assad cannot hold onto power much longer. Despite Assad’s vastly superior military position, U.S. officials point to recent rebel gains and defections to support their long-standing belief that Assad will be ousted or killed.
“We are confident that his days are numbered — that he is losing his grip on the country,” Michael Hammer, the assistant secretary of state for public affairs, told reporters this week. “Momentum is clearly against him.”
But many U.S. and Middle Eastern diplomats and intelligence analysts also think the regime still possesses sufficient resources to control Syria’s military and key cities for several more months, meaning violence is likely to worsen in the short term.
Syrian rebels have battled with government forces in and near the capital, Damascus, over the past week, resulting in some of the worst violence of the 16-month conflict, which has already killed 15,000 to 20,000 people, according to observer groups and activists.
Assad is digging in and is unlikely to surrender, said a Middle Eastern diplomat who closely tracks events in Syria.
“We’re seeing the rebels turn a corner,” said the diplomat, who insisted on anonymity in discussing his country’s internal assessments of events in Syria. “But the fact that his days are numbered are likely to make Assad even more hard-line than before. Now he will really lash out, and Iran is backing him with everything that it has.”
Analysts outside the government, including former U.S. officials, estimate that Assad could survive for months but not indefinitely.