U.S. piles more sanctions on Syria as hopes dim for peace plan

The Obama administration on Wednesday brought a new round of sanctions against Syrian companies and officials, including the man President Bashar Assad chose as his government’s negotiator in a United Nations peace plan that now appears defunct.

The timing of the announcement – on a day when rebel forces took credit for killing Assad’s top military officials in a brazen bombing in Damascus – only underscored the grim outlook for U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan’s plan for a negotiated, peaceful end to a conflict that’s raged for 16 months.

At Annan’s request, diplomats said, the U.N. Security Council delayed Wednesday’s scheduled vote on a resolution that would pave the way for U.N. sanctions against the Syrian leadership. The vote was postponed to Thursday, but Russia, an ally of Assad’s, has vowed to veto the resolution, which it says unfairly favors Syrian revolutionaries-turned-insurgents.

“Adopting a resolution against this backdrop would amount to a direct support for the revolutionary movement,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in Moscow, according to wire reports. “If we are talking about a revolution, then the U.N. Security Council has no place in this.”

Tension is building on the matter because the U.N. observer mission’s mandate expires Friday and the U.S. reportedly has warned that it will let the mission lapse if the Russians don’t agree on a resolution that includes the threat of sanctions.

With the announcement of new targets among Assad’s Cabinet and cronies, U.S. sanctions now extend to the entire Syrian government, the central bank and oil companies, according to a Treasury Department statement. The actions freeze any assets the individuals hold in the United States and bans U.S. citizens and companies from dealing with them.

Among the 29 individuals sanctioned Wednesday is Ali Haidar, Assad’s newly appointed minister of national reconciliation. Last week, Assad named Haidar as his negotiator in eventual talks with opposition forces, according to leaked minutes from a meeting the embattled president held with Annan.

The six-point U.N. peace plan includes a demand for the regime and opposition forces to identify negotiators for talks on a peaceful transition. Syrian opposition groups have long decried Annan’s plan as unfeasible, arguing that the regime is incapable of reform, and have refused to negotiate with any member of Assad’s administration.

The Obama administration has attempted to appease the U.N. and the Syrian opposition: American diplomats ostensibly signed on to the Annan plan, but they haven’t been able to push the fractious opposition actors into settling on a negotiator. The administration’s mantra, “It’s up to the Syrians to decide,” reportedly has frustrated Annan, as well as the Russians, who’ve long suspected that the United States is interested in a forcible removal of Assad.

With no influence on the regime and seemingly little sway over the opposition factions, the Obama administration has relied on sanctions to pressure Assad. But even these latest freezes, analysts point out, come much later than similar European moves and don’t cut considerably deeper than existing sanctions that predated Obama’s presidency.

“Sanctions have been our only means to try to get there,” said Joseph Holliday, an analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War who researches the Syrian opposition. “The problem is, the Syrian people saw our decision to back the Annan plan as backing away from trying to get Assad out.”

Official White House statements reiterated the Obama administration’s commitment to a “political transition,” although it didn’t join Britain, Russia and other countries in condemning the bombing Wednesday as an act of terrorism that undermines efforts toward a negotiated transition.

As Assad clings to power, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said, the situation in Syria becomes more chaotic and “the opportunity for a peaceful transition begins to diminish.”

“That’s why we need to come together with our partners internationally, form a consensus that embraces the notion that a transition in Syria is taking place and must take place, and that it cannot include President Assad because he has forfeited long ago any credibility he has with the Syrian people,” Carney added.

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