CONCLUSION AFTER GENEVA : U.S. Spy Chief Says Assad Has Strengthened His Hold on Power

By MICHAEL R. GORDON and MARK MAZZETTIFEB. 4, 2014 – Ne York Times – WASHINGTON — The country’s top intelligence official said Tuesday that President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power in Syria had “strengthened” over the past year, and that he had benefited from a deal to abandon his chemical weapons arsenal.

The statement by James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, came on a day when Syrian activists reported that government helicopters dumped explosives crammed inside oil drums and other large containers — so-called barrel bombs — onto neighborhoods in Aleppo suspected of housing insurgents. At least eight civilians, including five children, were killed, the report said.

Concern has been mounting both in Congress and in the Obama administration that the policy toward Syria is faltering on several fronts. Not only has the Assad government blocked progress at the Geneva peace talks that started last month, according to American officials, it has also delayed taking its most dangerous chemicals to the port of Latakia so they could be shipped out of the country for destruction under the terms of the agreement sealed in September that calls for Syria to give up its arsenal of poison gas.

The government has also blocked shipments of medicine and food to besieged areas. And the Obama administration’s envoy to the Syrian opposition, Robert S. Ford, is planning to retire soon, American officials said. The State Department has yet to name a successor. Secretary of State John Kerry fueled those concerns on Sunday with remarks in a closed-door meeting with lawmakers at a security conference in Munich.

“Secretary Kerry expressed frustration with the lack of success of the current policy in Syria,” said Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who attended the session.

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who also was at the meeting, said that Mr. Kerry appeared to be especially worried by the increase in the number of extremists who had streamed to Syria.

“Secretary Kerry said that we have got to change our strategy when it comes to Al Qaeda, and he was clearly expressing frustration with the Russians and Assad,” Mr. Graham said. “He talked about the need to provide more capacity to the opposition.”

Asked for comment, Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said Tuesday that the Obama administration was still committed to the Geneva peace talks, due to resume next week, and believed they were helping to build international pressure on the Assad government. And she denied that Mr. Kerry had called for a new strategy on Syria.

“No one in this administration thinks we’re doing enough until the humanitarian crisis has been solved and the civil war ended,” she said. “That is no different from the message Secretary Kerry conveyed during the private meeting.”

The Obama administration has hoped that the peace talks in Geneva might allow moderate opposition government leaders and Syrian officials to negotiate a transitional government that does not include Mr. Assad. But Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy to the talks, told the Munich conference on Friday that the first round of negotiations had made “no progress.”

Critics say such talks are unlikely to succeed unless Mr. Assad is weakened militarily and has some incentive to negotiate. But with the government receiving arms from Russia and Iran, and with the United States providing only limited support to the moderate opposition, critics say, there seems to be little reason for Mr. Assad to make major concessions.

Mr. Clapper’s testimony has only sharpened the debate. During a hearing before the House Intelligence Committee, Mr. Clapper said that Mr. Assad had grown stronger over the past year “by virtue of his agreement to remove the chemical weapons.” President Obama has hailed the agreement as a significant diplomatic breakthrough, and during his State of the Union address last week he cited it as an example of how his foreign policy had been effective.

But many experts say that the agreement may ultimately work to Mr. Assad’s advantage, as it prompted the Obama administration to withdraw its threat to carry out cruise missile attacks, has built up the Syrian government credibility on the world stage and has allowed it to play for time. In the early months of the Syrian rebellion in 2011, Mr. Obama called for Mr. Assad to step down, but he has since dropped this language from his public statements about Syria.

On Tuesday, Mr. Clapper also said it was possible the violence could rage on indefinitely, leading to “sort of a perpetual stalemate where neither the regime nor the opposition can prevail.”

Mr. Clapper appeared at the hearing with the heads of several other American intelligence agencies. John O. Brennan, director of the C.I.A., warned that the chaos in Syria had become fertile ground for militant groups to stage attacks outside the country.

“We are concerned about the use of Syrian territory by the Al Qaeda organization to recruit individuals and develop the capability to be able not just to carry out attacks inside of Syria, but also to use Syria as a launching pad,” he said.

Mr. Clapper said at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing last week that “Al Nusra Front, to name one, does have aspirations for attacks on the homeland.”

The civilians killed in Aleppo on Tuesday died when helicopters attacked a mosque in the Masaken Hanano neighborhood, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group based in Britain with a network of contacts in Syria. Russia, seeking to mollify international officials impatient with Syria for missing deadlines to destroy its chemical arsenal, said Tuesday that the Syrian government planned to send a large shipment out of the country this month and to export its entire stockpile by March 1. Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, defended the Syrian government’s explanations for the missed deadlines, arguing that security dangers posed by the Syrian civil war had created problems in transporting the chemicals to the port of Latakia, where an international flotilla awaits them. But Western officials have suggested this is merely an excuse. Despite a negotiated timetable, Syria missed a Dec. 31 deadline to export the most dangerous chemicals and will miss a second deadline on Wednesday to export all the chemicals. Diplomats say that only two small shipments, 4 percent of the dangerous chemicals, have been sent to the port of Latakia for removal.

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, and Rick Gladstone from New York.