Damascus countdown: “How long will Assad last?” National Intelligence Director testifies on Syria, Iran, other threats. Here’s what he said.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on "Current and Projected National Security Threats to the United States" on Capitol Hill in Washington March 12, 2013. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on “Current and Projected National Security Threats to the United States” on Capitol Hill in Washington March 12, 2013. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

“The question comes up, ‘How long will Assad last?'” said James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, in testimony before a Senate panel, according to a Reuters report. “And our standard answer is, ‘His days are numbered. We just don’t know the number.’ Our assessment is that he is very committed to hanging in there and sustaining his control of the regime.”

“Assad’s government is losing territory and experiencing shortages in manpower and logistics, Clapper said. But at the same time, there are ‘literally hundreds’ of cells of opposition fighters over which leaders are struggling to impose more centralized command and control….He added that Iran is doing what it can to prop up Assad’s government, through aid and training, despite being weakened by international sanctions seeking to keep Tehran from developing nuclear weapons capability. ‘Iran continues to be a destabilizing force in the region providing weapons and training to Syrian forces and standing up a militia force there to fight the Syrian opposition,’ Clapper said, with the goal of having at least a foothold in Syria even if Assad falls.”

“The erosion of the Syrian regime’s authority is accelerating, and the ‘increasingly beleaguered’ government, which has been unable to defeat insurgents with conventional weapons, might be prepared to use chemical weapons, the top U.S. intelligence official said Tuesday,” reports the Washington Post. “James R. Clapper, director of national intelligence, also noted that elements of Syria’s biological weapons program ‘may have advanced beyond the research and development stage,’ and that Syria possesses conventional and chemical weapons systems that ‘could be modified for biological agent delivery.'”

“The opposition is gaining in strength; it is gaining territory,” Clapper said in a prepared statement to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. “At the same time, the regime is experiencing shortages in manpower and logistics.”

“The prolonged instability is also allowing al-Qaeda’s al-Nusrah Front affiliate to establish itself in Syria, according to Clapper, who described the group as ‘pretty astute’ in its ability to provide municipal services amid the broadening humanitarian crisis,” notes the Post. “Clapper was testifying Tuesday along with the heads of the CIA, the FBI and the Defense Intelligence Agency, among others, as part of the intelligence community’s annual assessment of worldwide threats. The hearing covered the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, cybersecurity threats, regional instability, climate change and competition for natural resources.”

“Clapper said the intelligence community does ‘not know if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.’ He said there were ‘indications’ that sanctions were leading to a change in the approach of Iran’s leadership, specifically its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but he held back on specifics until the classified session. ‘We assess Iran is developing nuclear capabilities to enhance its security, prestige and regional influence and give it the ability to develop nuclear weapons, should a decision be made to do so,’ Clapper said. ‘Of particular note, Iran has made progress during the past year that better positions it to produce weapons-grade uranium (WGU) using its declared facilities and uranium stockpiles, should it choose to do so. Despite this progress, we assess Iran could not divert safeguarded material and produce a weapon-worth of WGU before this activity is discovered.'”