WASHINGTON (AP) — With Syrian diplomacy all but dead, the Obama administration is shifting its focus on the civil war away from political transition and toward helping the rebels defeat the Syrian regime on the battlefield.
The U.S. still wants to avoid any military involvement, banking on a complicated policy of indirect assistance to the rebels and hope that the ragtag alliance of militias can demoralize President Bashar Assad's better-armed forces and end the war without far greater casualties.
It's a scenario analysts see as unlikely, even as the opposition gains ground in Aleppo, Damascus and elsewhere, and as the cadre of high-level defections from Assad's government grows. Prime Minister Riad Hijab became the latest to abandon Assad on Monday, rebels said.
The defections are "the latest indication that Assad has lost control of Syria and that the momentum is with the opposition forces and the Syrian people," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said.
"The regime is crumbling," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said.
In Aleppo, the rebels are exceeding the expectations of military experts. Despite intense bombardment from warplanes, they've now withstood two weeks of regime counterattacks and are clawing toward the city center. Militiamen also are stepping up guerrilla-like forays in central districts of Damascus once firmly in Assad's hands.
Those gains have given the Obama administration hope that the tide of the war is turning — and without the need for the U.S. to reconsider its opposition to airstrikes, no-fly zones or even weapons sales to the anti-Assad forces.
And with U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan quitting his diplomatic efforts and the rebels starting to carve out larger toeholds in Syrian territory, the U.S. focus has changed accordingly.
Whereas once the U.S. hoped to see a cease-fire to end the fighting and then Assad leave office eventually on his own, the talk now is of the rebels driving him out of power by winning the war — or of Assad's loyalists, in the face of more military setbacks, turning on their leader.
As the rebels gain ground and weaponry, the U.S. has increased its humanitarian aid to $74 million and its "nonlethal" communications assistance to $25 million. The administration has eased restrictions for rebel fundraising in the United States.
It also has softened its support for the transitional plan crafted by Annan, and agreed to by both the United States and Russia after a conference in Geneva in June. The document aimed at establishing an interim government of individuals chosen by both the Assad regime and the opposition. Each would be able to veto candidates.
The arrangement was rejected immediately by many in the Syrian opposition, and Ventrell relegated it on Monday to a "basis for a good framework." He said the transitional authority should be chosen by the opposition and "remnants of the regime that don't have blood on their hands" — cutting out Assad and his senior government officials.
"The future of Syria is going to be for the Syrians to decide," he said.
Speaking last week, Ventrell said: "We are not at a point where we are negotiating with the Assad regime. We are at a point where the opposition is gaining ground and making plans for the day after."
The statements follow more than a year of Obama administration officials speaking of bringing international diplomatic pressure to drive Assad from office and meeting with multinational groups like the Friends of Syria.
While officials maintain that they'd prefer a "peaceful political transition" take place, they concede privately that the deaths of at least 19,000 Syrians over the past 17 months, the utter refusal by Assad to compromise and the failure of diplomacy means more bloodshed may lie ahead.
With mediation efforts cut off, a rebel victory now appears among the most feasible path forward for an end to Syria's war. And U.S. officials are trying to plan for messier regime change scenarios than the six-point plan advocated by Annan and adopted by no one in Syria.
The U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, held meetings with opposition leaders in Cairo last week. Those followed consultations that the State Department's Syria envoy, Fred Hof, held with activists and likeminded governments in Europe a week before. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will talk to Syrian activists and Turkish officials in Istanbul this weekend, rejecting proposals to turn her visit into another international diplomatic forum.
Ventrell said the goal of much of the recent diplomacy was to help the opposition come up with a post-Assad plan that would be as cohesive as possible.
"There still has to be water, electricity and all the basic services," Ventrell said. "What will the government look like? How it will function the day after? How will we ensure that (Syria) doesn't descend into further sectarian chaos? How do we make it work? That's some of the things we're working on."
The approach is one that American officials liken to a "soft landing." The goal would be to avoid the power vacuum of post-Saddam Hussein's Iraq by salvaging as many elements of the state as possible, and avoiding new insurgencies from emerging.
"We want to get there in a way that's a softer landing," a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter. "We don't want to see the institutions just melt away."
But it's unclear how quick the post-Assad era might come — and at what cost.
Most assessments see Syria's Assad making his stand in Damascus and battling to the end to hold his capital. Others speculate that regime loyalists could retreat to Alawite strongholds in northwest Syria, taking with them their guns, tanks, helicopters and even chemical weapons. Either situation could be extremely bloody. While Assad's forces are stretched, his Republican Guard units backed by airpower remain formidable.
And even as Clinton and other officials speak of the inevitability of opposition "safe zones" in Syria, the rebels have had to retreat from every major city they've held so far. They've maintained control of some rural areas bordering Turkey in the north, Lebanon in the west and Jordan in the south, according to the American Syrian Coalition.
The effect of the defections could be limited, as well. Like most previous regime members, those who fled Monday to Jordan were majority Sunnis. Assad still has the backing of the minority Alawite clan who hold most senior regime positions.
"It's politically important, but removing Assad and weakening his regime involves a political and military approach," said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "And it's the relative success of the military approach to date that has caused this defection."