Senior U.S. commander: Assad will ‘fight to the death’

Olivier Knox
Yahoo! News
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In this image taken from video obtained from the Shaam News Network, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, columns of smoke billowing as a result of heavy bombing, in the countryside outside of Aleppo Syria, Monday July 22, 2013. Syrian rebels seized a strategic village on the edge of the northern city of Aleppo on Monday, activists said, just hours after other opposition fighters sustained some of their heaviest losses in months in battles to the south near the capital, Damascus. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network via AP video)

Top U.S. military officials painted a grim picture of the civil war in Syria on Thursday, saying the tide of battle has shifted in Bashar Assad’s favor and that he will “fight to the death.”

The nation’s top uniformed military officer, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey, warned that Assad would probably be in power a year from now unless the U.S. ramps up support for rebels fighting to oust him.

“If nothing changes, if we don’t change our game, will he be in power a year from now?” South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham asked Dempsey in an Armed Services Committee hearing.

“I think likely so,” the general replied. “Currently the tide seems to have shifted in his favor."

At the same hearing, Admiral James Winnefeld, the Joint Chiefs vice chairman, told Graham the rebels were “hanging on” in some parts of the country. But “if I were to have to pick who’s winning it would be the regime, but not by much right now.”

Winnefeld warned, “Assad, he’s going to fight to the death.”

Dempsey said he had presented President Barack Obama with options for “kinetic strikes” by the U.S. military against Syrian targets. “That issue is under deliberation,” the general said.

At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney said the U.S. would continue to “ramp up” – including military assistance announced June 13 – but played down the prospects for direct American military action.

“President Obama is always tasking his military leaders to provide him options,” the spokesman said. “And that is true in the case of Syria, and it has been true with regards to other situations in other countries, in other regions of the world.”

(Carney yet again refused to detail what military aid the United States is providing to the rebels, but said “We’ve been ramping up our assistance to the Syrian military council steadily.”)

As for Assad, “while there are ups and downs on the battlefield and changes in momentum, the fact is Bashar al-Assad will never again rule Syria in the way that he did before,” the press secretary said. “Assad, in our view, will never rule all of Syria again.”

Asked if Carney had been cracking the door open a bit to letting Assad end up diminished but not deposed, National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan quickly slammed it shut.

“The U.S. position that Bashar al-Assad has lost all legitimacy and must step aside has not changed," she said. "The Assad family spent decades co-opting the institutions of the Syrian state and terrorizing the Syrian people, but Bashar Al-Assad’s rule will come to an end."

The Obama administration is "not under any illusions that this conflict will be resolved easily," she said, "but with the support of the United States and the international community, the Syrian people will have a chance to forge their own future.”