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US policymakers brace for potential 'collapse' in Syria

U.S. policymakers are bracing for a potential "collapse" of the power structure inside Syria, as the Obama administration closely monitors the intensifying violence in the capital. 

Following a bomb attack that left several Syrian regime officials dead, a State Department source forwarded to Fox News an assessment from an independent Middle East analyst who monitors social media in the region and provides occasional guidance to the department. 

"Tweet trends on #Damascus indicate something will collapse in #Syria next 36 hours," the message said. "Looks a lot like Tripoli did a year ago." 

The note was a reference to the atmosphere in Libya's capital before Muammar Qaddafi's regime was overthrown, and Qaddafi was captured and killed. 

It's unclear whether Damascus has entered such a period, but the capital saw an unprecedented attack Wednesday on Bashar Assad's regime, when a bomb ripped through a high-level security meeting and killed at least three officials. 

Syrian TV confirmed the deaths of Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha, 65, a former army general and the most senior government official to be killed in the rebels' battle to oust Assad; Gen. Assef Shawkat, the deputy defense minister who is married to Assad's elder sister; and Hassan Turkmani, a former defense minister who died of wounds suffered in the attack. 

Also wounded were Interior Minister Mohammed Shaar and Maj. Gen. Hisham Ikhtiar, who heads the National Security Department. State TV said both were in stable condition. 

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking alongside British Defense Minister Philip Hammond on Wednesday, said the escalating violence indicates that the rebels feel emboldened and that the government of Assad is suffering "probably some fragmentation around the edges" as it struggles to keep a grip on power. 

The bombing was the harshest blow to the government's inner circle in the 16-month uprising. 

Hammond and Panetta both stressed the urgency of finding a political solution that results in Assad's exit. 

"The violence there has only gotten worse, and the loss of lives has only increased," Panetta said, "which tells us that this is a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control." He said that is all the more reason for the international community to bring "maximum pressure" on Assad to step down and permit a stable transfer of power. 

Though a U.N. Security Council vote was scheduled Wednesday afternoon on a new resolution that would impose sanctions on Syria's government, that vote was postponed at envoy Kofi Annan's request. 

Meanwhile, the Obama administration slapped financial sanctions on a huge swath of top members in Assad's government, targeting the prime minister and 28 other cabinet ministers and senior officials. 

The Treasury Department announced the sanctions on Wednesday, hours after top Syrian officials were killed in the explosion in Damascus. 

Fox News' James Rosen and The Associated Press contributed to this report.