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US makes plans to keep post-Assad Syria intact

The country's biggest city, Aleppo, has been under attack for two weeks and the rebels are dangerously close to running out of weapons. Now Riad Hijab, the first Syrian cabinet minister to defect, has fled the country. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

Sana Handout / EPA

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

The State Department and the Pentagon are jointly working on plans for a post-President Bashar Assad Syria.

They hope to avoid the kind of implosion they believe occurred because of a lack of planning for post-Saddam Iraq.

The Bush administration's decision to disband Iraqi security forces, made shortly after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, was a catalyst for the bloody civil war that followed.

Critics said that decision, made by senior Pentagon officials and announced by the head of the U.S. occupation authority at the time, Paul Bremer, set loose tens of thousands of armed, disaffected young men.

The U.S. is indicating to the Syrian army that it does not want it to dissolve and those not directly involved in atrocities could be part of a successor regime.

State Department Spokesman Patrick Ventrell said at a daily press briefing Monday:

"What we’re focused on and our concern is that as the opposition comes together with the remaining elements of the regime that don’t have blood on their hands, that they create an inclusive Syria where the rights of all Syrians are respected. And so that’s our focus and that’s what we’re directly communicating to the opposition, and that’s certainly where our feelings are."

U.S. officials also hope that civil servants and other Assad holdovers will work with an interim government to avoid the kind of vacuum that led to widespread civil disorder, looting, and ultimately to civil war in Iraq.

Related: Official: Syria PM defects to anti-Assad opposition

Officials believe it is only a matter of time before Assad is gone, one way or another -- although they can't predict when.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, a veteran in Middle East affairs, is in charge of the planning.

Handout / Reuters

An activist takes a photo of buildings damaged by what activists say is shelling by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in Talbeiseh, near Homs, on Monday.

He is assisted by U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who had returned to Washington after diplomatic operations in Damascus were suspended in February.

Last week, Ford talked with Syria opposition leaders in Cairo.

Burns' schedule includes two White House meetings Tuesday, likely indicating more inter-agency planning on the Syria crisis.

Related: Three US senators warn about risks of inaction in Syria

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, traveling in South Africa on Monday, announced a day earlier that she will add a stop in Turkey to her overseas trip for meetings with Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan on the Syria crisis.

Part of the U.S. planning includes Pentagon contingency plans for NATO and Syria's neighbors to help provide transportation, food and medical supplies to a potential flood of refugees -- well beyond the current numbers -- in case there is a total collapse of the Syrian regime.

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A key component of the post-Assad plan: pressing the occupation not to inflict reprisals against Assad loyalists after he goes.

"When we talk to the opposition we’re very clear ... revenge or reprisals are totally unacceptable," Ventrell said Monday.

Clashes raged between rebel fighters and government forces in Syria as the country's divided opposition seeks to oust Assad in a 16-month-old revolt that shows no signs of nearing a conclusion.

Government forces have been pounding rebels with tanks and air strikes, and last week Damascus threatened to use chemical weapons if foreign countries intervened in the conflict.

The Obama administration has said it is stepping up assistance to Syrian opposition members, although the support has remained limited to non-lethal equipment.

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