WASHINGTON — Sectarian violence is likely to continue in Syria long after the fall of President Bashar Assad, the Obama administration’s top intelligence official said Thursday.
“The most likely scenario that we see, even after Assad falls, is probably more fractionalization, if I can use that word, both geographically and on a sectarian basis, for some period,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Jr. told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Clapper said extremist groups within the opposition “have a presence in 13 of the 14 provinces in Syria.”
Asked to quantify the likelihood that the United States and its allies would be able to secure Syria’s chemical-weapons arsenal if Assad falls, Clapper declined. “I’m not sure I know how to make a call like that,” he said.
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The Obama administration has repeatedly expressed concern that such weapons could fall into the hands of extremists.
At a separate hearing, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the House Armed Services Committee, “We have not detected use of chemical weapons. … Obviously, if that line is crossed, then we’ve got a different situation.”
Lawmakers across Capitol Hill voiced increasing frustration over the situation in Syria, though they remained divided on what to do about it. More than 70,000 people have died in the two-year-old civil war there, and millions have fled their homes.
Although some senators voiced concern about any expansion of the U.S. role in Syria beyond humanitarian aid, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., repeated his call for U.S. military involvement, disputing an assessment by U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford that opposition leaders would like more help but are “appreciative” of the humanitarian aid received so far.
“I’ve met with the [opposition] military leadership,” McCain said. “They’re not appreciative, they’re angry and bitter.”
Meanwhile, a meeting of foreign ministers of the Group of Eight nations in London ended without agreement on Syria, as Russia refused to relinquish its backing for Assad. Those G-8 countries that are aiding Syrian rebels, including Britain, France and the United States, met with opposition leaders but deflected their request to provide weapons. Instead, the countries indicated they would increase nonlethal military aid to the rebels.
The Obama administration said last month that it would send food and medical assistance, and President Obama issued orders Thursday to make $10 million worth of supplies available.