PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday that the defections of Syria's prime minister and other senior officials along with intensified fighting between government troops and rebels heighten the urgency of planning for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Clinton said the U.S. and other nations need to quickly come up with a transition plan that ensures that Syrian state institutions remain intact once Assad loses his grip on power. She also stressed, in a veiled warning to Iran,that outsiders should not attempt to take advantage of any power vacuum that arises.
"I do think we can begin talking about planning for what happens next: the day after the regime does fall," Clinton told reporters at a news conference with South Africa's foreign minister. "I am not going to put a timeline on it, I can't possibly predict it, but I know it's going to happen as do most observers around the world."
"The intensity of the fighting in Aleppo, the defections, really point out how imperative it is that we come together and work toward a good transition plan," she said.
She added that the rebels are becoming "increasingly coordinated and effective," are believed to hold a corridor of territory from Aleppo north to the Turkish border and are seizing weapons, including tanks, from the Syrian army.
"We must figure out ways to hasten the day when the bloodshed ends and the political transition begins," said Clinton, who will travel to Istanbul, Turkey this weekend for talks with Turkish officials and Syrian opposition figures aimed at plotting a course ahead.
"We have to be sure that we're working with the international community to bring that day about and to be very clear of our expectations of both the government and the opposition about ending the violence and beginning the political transition," she said.
Key to the transition will be maintaining order, restoring a functioning economy and keeping out potential spoilers sponsored by Assad allies like Iran, she said.
"We have to make sure that the state institutions stay intact," she said. "We have to make sure that we send very clear expectations about avoiding sectarian warfare. Those who are attempting to exploit the misery of the Syrian people, either by sending in proxies or sending in terrorist fighters, must recognize that that will not be tolerated first and foremost by the Syrian people."
Clinton spoke a day after the defection of Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab, the latest in a string of high-level departures from the Assad regime.
Meanwhile, more than 1,300 Syrians fled to Turkey overnight to escape the civil war as rebels tried to expand their hold inside Syria's largest city despite two weeks of withering counterattacks by Assad's troops and Assad's vow to fight on.
Heavily armed government troops have been steadily shelling rebel-controlled parts of Aleppo, and clashes continued Tuesday the historic city center. That suggests the rebels were making some inroads in Aleppo, which lies just south of the Turkish border.