WASHINGTON The Obama administration, shifting its focus away from deadlocked U.N. diplomacy over Syria, is now seeking ways to further bolster Syrian rebel forces, including increased supplies of communications equipment and sharing of intelligence, U.S. sources said on Monday.
The stepped-up U.S. effort to assist the fractious Syrian opposition comes as Washington turns to like-minded Western and Arab countries to help ratchet up pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose vulnerability was laid bare last week with a deadly bomb attack on his inner circle.
That bold attack, together with rebel offensives in Syria's two biggest cities and a double-veto of a Syria sanctions resolution at the United Nations, has spurred U.S. officials to intensify contingency planning for Assad's possible fall from power.
Though aides to U.S. President Barack Obama are not ready to predict how long Assad can stay in power, they are struggling to devise an endgame that would safeguard Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles and prevent the breakup of the country along sectarian lines.
U.S. officials insist that they have no plans for now to send lethal weapons to Syria's rebels, a step the White House has publicly ruled out.
But Washington is preparing to provide additional communications equipment and training to help the opposition improve its command-and-control capabilities for coordinating their fighters.
"We want to support them becoming more cohesive, both in terms of their ability to put together a common vision but also their ability to communicate and be in touch with one another," a senior U.S. official told Reuters.
While Washington remains concerned about the role of Islamist militants in the anti-Assad insurgency, there are also signs that some intelligence on Assad's troop movements was starting to be fed to rebel groups. Details of such intelligence sharing could not be learned.
"The policy's moved a little bit," said one source with knowledge of White House policymaking on Syria, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We're not doing anything lethal, but we're assisting more."
Bolstering the rebels, comprised of many different factions, and nudging them into a more cohesive force will be a tough challenge.
The rebels have become better organized and more mobile in recent weeks, but Assad's forces, with superior firepower, have managed to reverse some of the opposition's gains.
Obama on Monday warned Assad that he would be "held accountable by the international community" if his government made the "tragic mistake" of using its chemical weapons.
His comments came after Syria acknowledged it had chemical and biological weapons, saying it would not use them to crush the rebellion but could employ them if foreign countries intervened.
Another hurdle to the revised U.S. policy is the anti-Assad movement itself, which has had little success coalescing politically.
With the impasse at the United Nations due to Russia's and China's decision to shield Assad from further sanctions, the Obama administration is turning to the "Friends of Syria" grouping of allied countries to find ways to work with the Syrian opposition to further squeeze Assad's government.
"That center of gravity shifts to the Friends of Syria effort," the senior administration official said. "We still think Assad is going to be out of power and we still think there needs to be a plan for what happens next."
The official said Washington was pressing opposition politicians to devise an "inclusive" transition plan that would prevent the "day-after Assad" from descending into a sectarian civil war.
Some analysts say Syria could end being torn apart into sectarian cantons with Kurds in the north, Assad's Alawites along the coast, Druze in the southern hills and Sunnis elsewhere. The conflict, they say, could further destabilize Syria's neighbors, including Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)