The Pentagon has set up a special team to prepare for what many U.S. officials believe is the imminent collapse of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, The Washington Examiner has learned.

The Crisis Asset Team will help prepare the U.S. military for whatever role it might take in the conflict that appears to be reaching a decisive moment in which the government could fall apart, officials said.

Signs that the Syrian regime is on the verge of collapsing grew stronger over the weekend as violence escalated in its capital Damascus and more senior Syrian military officials defected and left the country.

"At the Department's own initiative, and not at the request of the White House, our planning efforts have evolved to account for the deteriorating situation in Syria," said a Pentagon official with direct knowledge of the efforts underway there to prepare for the fall of Assad. "This is an internal Defense Department effort at this stage."

Violence intensified in Damascus Saturday. Downtown neighborhoods and surrounding suburbs were pummeled by mortar and artillery fire from troops loyal to the regime, opposition activists told The Washington Examiner.

Syrian rebels also attacked the coastal city of Aleppo Saturday, which has been a key bastion of support for Assad over the course of the 17-month-old uprising.

"There were huge explosions and the gunfire didn't stop for several hours," Aleppo-based activist Mohammad Saeed told The Associated Press via Skype. The city has remained largely loyal to Assad and been spared the kind of daily bloodshed that has plagued other areas.

The fighting throughout Syria has forced thousands of civilians to seek refuge across the borders in Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon, according to reports from the region.

James Carafano, a senior defense analyst with The Heritage Foundation, said the Pentagon only sets up Crisis Asset Teams "when they believe things are getting ready to break."

He added, "It does look like Syria is at a tipping point. Everybody's betting on a collapse at this point. But it's the next steps which will be very, very difficult -- that's why these assessments are taking place. We're definitely sitting on the roller coaster phase."

While opposition groups maintain they are prepared to take over governing Syria, some U.S. analysts fear those groups will fall into fighting among themselves, creating chaos in the wake of Assad's fall.

"A worst case scenario is where Iran fuels a proxy war inside the country that spreads throughout the region," Carafano said.

The death toll from fighting on Friday reached at least 286, including 124 men, women and children in Damascus and its suburbs, according to Local Coordination Committees of Syria, an opposition group with members throughout the region. That added to the roughly 17,000 deaths in Syria since anti-Assad forces revolted more than a year ago.

Activists expected the death toll and injuries to rise over the weekend.

Sawsan Jabri, spokeswoman for the Syrian Expatriates Organization, said she was in contact with family in Damascus and "the situation is deteriorating rapidly, some of my close family have fled their homes seeking safer places in Lebanon."

Opposition activists in Syria describe a chaotic scene in Damascus. Jabri said people fear that increasingly brutal regime forces will begin, "slaughtering kids and raping women."

Jabri said the humanitarian crisis is getting worse by the day. She said people are short on food and unable to get the basic daily living needs "like bread, milk for children, medicine, gas, power, and many other essentials."

Sara A. Carter is The Washington Examiner's national security correspondent. She can be reached at scarter@