The revised estimates compiled by US and French intelligence agencies on the relative strength of Syrian government and rebel forces have given Washington and Arab capitals backing the Syrian opposition pause. The Obama administration has built its policies around an estimated 70,000 rebel fighters, whereas the revised figure, according to Russian intelligence sources, appears to be less than half – around 30,000. With some 3,000 jihadis, Al Qaeda-linked groups make up around one-tenth of total rebel strength.
Officials in Washington and Paris are trying to play down the revised estimates because it throws out the basic premise of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy that Bashar Assad can’t last more than six months against the rebel offensive. US military experts now admit, albeit without attribution, that the overall balance of strength – and not just the numbers – has radically changed in the Assad regime’s favor, due to direct Iranian military input: Military advisers of the elite Al Qods Brigades are conducting crash combat courses for the 70,000- strong pro-Assad Alawite militia and sections of the Syrian army still loyal to the ruler.
This qualitative injection into Assad’s military sources will substantially extend the life expectancy of his regime.
For now, US President Barack Obama does not appear to be affected by the new figures or about to change his firm position against direct Western or regional intervention in Syria. He is still pressuring Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to keep a lid on the escalating Turkish-Syrian hostilities. He is also holding Saudi Arabia and Qatar back from supplying the rebels with heavy anti-tank and anti-air weapons for withstanding Syrian assaults.
At the same time, the situation in Syria is incendiary enough to shoot into an unforeseen direction in the three weeks remaining up until the US presidential election and may force the president’s hand. The Syrian crisis will certainly figure large in his debate with Republican candidate Mitt Romney Tuesday, Oct. 16, along with the security issues raised by the murder of four US diplomats in Libya by al Qaeda on Sept. 11.
Intelligence, sources in Paris, report that President France Hollande’s take on the new intelligence estimates counters the Obama position. He is urging direct intervention in Syria for the creation of safe havens for opposition forces and refugees, a no-fly zone and a supply of heavy weapons to give the insurgents a chance to retilt the tide of the war in their favor. He is galvanized by reports from the battlefield that the rebels face serious reverses in the face of the Assad army’s numerical superiority and Iranian, Russian and Hizballah aid. This could lead to a hopeless stalemate in the Syrian crisis, which the Syrian ruler would use to grind down the opposition’s strength and reassert his authority, helped along by the bitter divisions in Syrian opposition ranks.
For now, Israel’s leaders are lining up publicly with the Obama prediction of a foreshortened Assad reign and overestimate of rebel strength and prospects. They continue to assert that the Syrian ruler’s days are numbered. Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi is more reserved. During a visit IDF forces ranged on the Golan on Oct. 3, he spoke cautiously about “the eroding authority of the Syrian regime.”