With Syrian rebel groups making yet another concerted push into the outskirts of Damascus and into coastal areas loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, there is a growing consensus that Assad’s reign is as close to ending as it has ever been.
U.S. officials say that after ceding considerable territory to rebel groups, regime forces appear now to be hardening their lines and putting up more of a fight. And help, some in the form of low-end military aid and money, continues to come in from both Russia and Iran.
It just may not be enough.
A U.S. military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told VOA pro-regime forces are “pretty weak and depleted at this point.”
Even before the most recent spate of fighting, the U.S. military assessment of Assad’s future was bleak.
“The longer the civil war goes, the more difficult it becomes for him to recruit his forces, equip his forces,” a senior military official said. “The net is steadily closing in.”
Recent protests in the suburbs of Damascus and in the coastal cities of Latakia and Tartous also speak to a growing dissatisfaction with Assad, even among Shi’ites and Alawites who have served as his base of support.
U.S. intelligence officials are not ready to predict the Assad regime’s imminent demise given what they describe as the “fluid nature” of the Syrian conflict. They also say Russia and Iran are unlikely to simply “abandon Syria to the clutches of hardline extremist groups.”
But they note it is forcing both Russia and Iran to confront what, for them, may be an unpleasant reality.
“It is logical that they will begin to consider post-Assad options,” a U.S. intelligence official told VOA. “It is not clear they will be able to save him.”
Even if Russia and Iran are looking at alternatives, for now they continue to insist the Syrian president’s removal cannot be a precondition for any negotiations.
"If some of our partners believe that we should necessarily agree in advance that at the end of an interim period the president will leave his post - this position is not acceptable for Russia," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said following a meeting with his Iranian counterpart in Moscow earlier this week.
The State Department Thursday refused to say whether Russia had privately given any indications it might be willing to compromise.
“Russia and Iran, what their stance might be on Assad is for them to speak to,” said spokesman John Kirby.
“We’ve made our position very clear about the future of Assad and his regime,” he said. “What we want is a political transition in Syria.”
But U.S. officials have also been hesitant to advocate for the removal of Assad at all costs.
A senior U.S. military official warns that Assad’s ouster by rebel groups “makes the region more volatile,” with the likelihood that many of the regime’s Russian-made weapons systems would fall into the hands of extremists, like the al-Qaida linked Nusra Front or the Islamic State group.