Western officials inched closer to calling for direct intervention in Syria Wednesday as a series of suicide bombings rocked Damascus, reportedly killing Bashar al-Assad's defense minister and brother-in-law and signalling the end of his reign could be near.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called the suicide attacks a "real escalation in the fighting," adding the civil war in Syria "is rapidly spinning out of control." Panetta also renewed the Obama administration's insistence that Assad step down.
"By ignoring appeals from the international community...the loss of lives has only increased," Panetta said during a morning briefing with his British counterpart.
The Pentagon chief told reporters it is "extremely important that the international community...bring maximum pressure on Assad to do what's right and step down."
Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says the attacks, one of which struck the meeting site of top Assad regime officials, appear to have been "an inside operation." That suggests "that we're seeing the unraveling of the security structure around Assad," she says.
"What we haven't seen a significant unraveling of the core of the Assad regime, including the most important elements of the military," Ottoway says. "But we may be seeing the beginning of that unraveling. One thing that's likely to happen is if there are more incidents of this kind...at some point it snowballs. This is an event that suggests we're coming closer to that point."
In a statement, British Foreign Minister William Hague condemned the attacks, and said they show that the United Nations Security Council should pass a resolution that invokes Chapter Seven of the U.N. charter.
That would allow the 15-member council to approve a range of future actions, both diplomatic and military--but such a measure has thus far been blocked by longtime Syria ally Russia. A vote on a Syria resolution is slated for Wednesday afternoon in New York.
"The situation in Syria is clearly deteriorating," Hague said. "We call on all parties to refrain from violence, and for the Security Council to shoulder its responsibilities."
Fighting between opposition members and Assad's military have killed over 17,000 people. The Obama administration and its western allies have thus far opted against getting directly involved.
Syrian opposition sources say Washington is providing funds and intelligence for rebel elements, while Saudi Arabia has taken the lead on getting arms to rebel fighters.
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter.