US says signs growing that Syrian elite wants out

February 10, 2012 - 6:15 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration says it is seeing growing signs that the Syrian elite, including people close to President Bashar Assad, are increasingly worried and beginning to prepare exit plans.

Two U.S. officials said Friday that one Assad family member has moved large amounts of money out of the country to avoid U.S. and other sanctions on the country and provide a nest egg for a life in exile. Similarly, a senior member of Assad's national security circle has very recently left the country and appears to have settled abroad, they said.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified intelligence. They would not identify either the family member or the official or give specifics about the money transfer or the apparent defection. But the examples they cited suggest a new level of planning and worry among the senior regime.

In response to a question about whether the wealthy were fleeing the regime, the State Department said it had information that elite Syrians were looking for help from the opposition Syrian National Council in getting cash and relatives out of the country.

"We are beginning to see this trend accelerate," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.

Also Friday, the State Department released declassified satellite imagery depicting what intelligence analysts said is heavy weaponry being deployed for use against civilians in or near the Syrian cities of Az Zabadani, Halbun, Rankus and Homs.

The nine photos, said to be taken on Wednesday, showed what were identified as artillery pieces and a rocket launcher pointing toward civilian areas.

"Our intent here is to obviously expose the ruthlessness or the brutality of this regime and its overwhelming predominant military advantage and the horrible kinds of weaponry that it's deploying against its people," Nuland said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, who closed the embassy and left Damascus on Monday, said film and photos from those cities prove the government is "using mortars and artillery against residential neighborhoods." He said he was puzzled that some were trying to equate the actions of the opposition with that of the security forces.

"It is odd to me that anyone would try to equate the actions of the Syrian army and armed opposition groups since the Syrian government consistently initiates the attacks on civilian areas and it is using its heaviest weapons," he wrote on the embassy's Facebook page.

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