Regime Fires Mortars Into Syrian Streets As U.S. Plans For Post-Assad Era

Even as Assad escalates brutality, Obama administration focuses on what happens after he leaves power.

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reportedly is firing mortars and cluster munitions on his own citizens as his forces and rebel elements continue a bloody civil war. Instead of stepping in to drive Assad from power even as more and more civilians die, however, Washington and its allies continue to work toward setting up a government to eventually replace him.

Cable news outlets aired video Friday supposedly showing mortars fired by regime forces into the streets of the nation's capital city of Damascus. Assad's alleged use of mortars comes days after Human Rights Watch released a statement saying the organization had reviewed evidence of "identifiable cluster bombs and submunitions."

Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has left his role as the U.N.'s special envoy to broker some kind of a peace deal. And there are fresh reports from the ground of rebel forces clashing with Syrian Kurdish groups, longtime allies of Assad.

[Photo Gallery: Syrian Rebellion Gains Momentum]

"[Assad] continues to brutally murder his own people, to use heavy weapons in assaults on civilian population centers, to call on his military leaders to kill the Syrian people in his name," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Thursday. "It is disgusting and only highlights the absolute requirement that, for the future of the Syrian people, Assad must step aside."

But the Obama administration appears committed to letting the civil war run its course while providing some help to rebels and trying to piece together a transition government that can take over as soon as Assad leaves his post.

"Our position has not changed. We provide non-lethal assistance to the opposition," Carney said. "We don't believe that adding to the number of weapons in Syria is what's needed to help bring about a peaceful transition."

U.S. officials are "studying the opposition, working with the opposition," Carney said. "There has been progress by the opposition in unifying itself. I would note that some leaders of the opposition, military leaders, have made clear their position that they are fighting for a Syria that is inclusive, that recognizes the rights of all Syrians. And we would certainly support that position."

Syrian experts with contacts inside the war-torn nation say it now appears the Assad regime could fall in a few weeks.

Washington and other nations have "focused new attention on the post-Assad battle for Syria and increased pressure to find someone who might provide greater order and stability during what is likely to be a bloody and chaotic transition," Katherine Wilkens of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote in a recent piece on the think tank's website.

"The United States and its Arab and Western allies are discussing ways to place high-ranking Syrian defector Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass at the center of the political transition [reflects] a new sense of urgency that has gripped the international community," Wilkens writes.

Yet, as U.S. and regional officials search for a leader who might be able to keep things relatively calm inside Syria in the weeks and months after Assad's ouster, much more fighting might be ahead, some say.

Truman Project CEO Rachel Kleinfeld predicts "we're set for a long civil war if nothing is done [by] our side." (She was referring to the United States.)

The reasons are tactical ones. Rebel forces likely will continue capturing major urban areas, because Assad is not yet desperate enough to "bomb cities into oblivion," and his tank units cannot maneuver freely inside tight cities, says Kleinfeld. But the tank units will be able to control suburban areas and key positions along Syria's borders.

"We're looking at a long, bloody stalemate" that will only get "bloodier and bloodier," says Kleinfeld, adding sectarian fighting "has already started."

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at jbennett@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter.

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