WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has for now abandoned efforts for a diplomatic settlement to the conflict in Syria and instead it is increasing aid to the rebels and redoubling efforts to rally a coalition of like-minded countries to forcibly bring down the government of President Bashar Assad, US officials say.
Administration officials have been in talks with officials in Turkey and Israel over how to manage a Syrian government collapse. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta is headed to Israel in the next several days to meet with Israeli defense counterparts, following up on a visit last week by President Obama’s national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon, to discuss, in part, the Syrian crisis.
The administration has been holding regular talks with Israel about how it might move to destroy Syrian weapons facilities, administration officials said. The administration is not advocating such an attack, the officials said, because of the risk that it would give Assad an opportunity to rally support against Israeli interference.
The White House is now holding daily high-level meetings to discuss a broad range of contingency plans — including safeguarding Syria’s vast chemical weapons arsenal and sending explicit warnings to both warring sides to avert mass atrocities — in a sign of the escalating seriousness of the Syrian crisis following a week of intensified fighting in Damascus, the capital, and the killing of Assad’s key security aides in a bombing attack.
Administration officials insist they will not provide arms to the rebel forces. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are already financing those efforts.
But US officials said that the United States was likely to supply some intelligence support and provide more communications training and equipment to help improve the combat effectiveness of disparate opposition forces in their widening, sustained fight against Syrian army troops.
By enhancing the command-and-control of the rebel formations, largely by improving their ability to communicate with one another and their superiors and to coordinate combat operations, US officials say they are seeking to build on and fuel the momentum of the rebels’ recent battlefield successes.
“You’ll notice in the last couple of months, the opposition has been strengthened,’’ a senior Obama administration official said Friday. ‘‘Now we’re ready to accelerate that.’’ The official said that the hope was that support for the Syrian opposition from the United States, Arab governments, and Turkey would tip the balance in the conflict.
Senior administration officials say the changes are in response to a series of setbacks at the UN Security Council, where Russia has staunchly refused to engineer the removal of Assad, as well as the turmoil that has left the Syrian government reeling, at least for the moment.
‘‘We’re looking at the controlled demolition of the Assad regime,’’ said Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. ‘‘But like any controlled demolition, anything can go wrong.’’
Obama has come under criticism from some Republican hawks, who say that the United States should intervene militarily in Syria, and from the Republican presidential aspirant Mitt Romney, who has said that he would arm the Syrian opposition — a course which the administration has not taken.
Instead, Obama had been backing UN efforts and pushing Russia to join the United States in calling for Assad to step down. But Russia and China on Thursday blocked tougher UN action in the Security Council. This prompted Susan E. Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, to say that the Security Council had ‘‘utterly failed’’ Syria and to pledge that the United States will now work ‘‘with a diverse range of partners outside the Security Council’’ to pressure the Assad government.
But as last week’s unexpected turn of events indicate, planning for the end of the Assad government, which administration officials insist will happen without saying precisely when, is virtually impossible. ‘‘What is the end? That’s the dilemma,’’ said one senior defense official. ‘‘No one knows what the end is. So it’s all about mitigating the risks.’’
And the risks are legion.
The escalating violence has so far sent as many as 125,000 people fleeing across Syria’s border into neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq, according to the State Department. US officials are expressing fears that the implosion of the government could lead to a breakup of Syria, with Assad’s minority Alawite sect retreating to coastal mountain redoubts still armed with their chemical weapons.
‘‘It’s an outcome that contains the seeds of a war that never ends,’’ said Robert Malley, Middle East and North Africa program director at the International Crisis Group.