U.S. intelligence officials are surprised over the rapid deterioration of the Syrian Army, the Washington Post's David Ignatius reported Thursday. U.S. intelligence reports say that on Monday, 350 Syrian soldiers defected from the national Army controlled by President Bashar Assad to the opposition Free Syrian Army.
"I am stunned at how fast this is moving, and how fast Assad is falling," said a senior U.S. official who coordinates policy towards Damascus. American officials say Assad is no longer able to exert control over the entire country.
Between 7,000 and 10,000 Syrian soldiers have defected from the military, and an estimated 15,000 more have gone AWOL. They are believed to have taken refuge in Turkey or Jordan or to have gone underground in Syria. While these soldiers are hardly capable of taking on the 300,000-man Syrian Army by themselves, it's clear that things are spiraling rapidly downhill for Assad, whose family has run the country for more than 40 years.
In an effort to prevent opposition forces from making further inroads in embattled major cities like Aleppo and Damascus, the Syrian military is withdrawing units from embattled cities like Idlib, Homs and Hama—leaving them more vulnerable to capture by opposition forces. Thursday marked the 30th anniversary of the Hama massacre, in which the Syrian military, under orders from Bashar's father, President Hafez Assad, slaughtered tens of thousands of its countrymen in suppressing a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Assad's decline is worrying Iran, which last month dispatched Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards' Qods (Jerusalem) Force to Syria, where he offered weapons and financial assistance to the Assad regime.
But at the same time, Tehran may be hedging its bets. Ignatius reports that Iran has reportedly opened secret contacts with opposition forces, and may offer them a limited amount of weapons and funding.
"Such an effort to back two sides at once would be characteristic of Suleimani, who employed similar tactics in Iraq in his role as chief of Iranian covert action," Ignatius writes.
Meanwhile, Israeli officials are worried that Damascus may transfer weapons of mass destruction to Hizballah. A senior Israeli defense official said that as the situation worsens for Assad, it may try to transfer weaponry to Hizballah control—possibly at Tehran's behest. Doing so, one official said, would be tantamount to "a declaration of war."