The United States moved to freeze the assets of dozens of Syrian ministers Wednesday, piling pressure on the regime as it reeled from a bomb attack that took out three core security officials.
The White House insisted President Bashar al-Assad was “losing control” of power, as Washington marshaled its forces to push the regime toward its tipping point.
The Treasury Department announced assets freezes and bans on links with 29 members of the regime's upper echelon, including the ministers of finance, economy and justice, and the governor of the central bank.
While the U.S. had already introduced sanctions against 100 members of the regime, the move represented a significant stepping up of pressure on Assad’s inner circle.
Until now those not directly involved in the violence had largely dodged sanctions, as Washington tried to encourage defections or even an internal revolt.
Among the other ministers included in Wednesday’s actions were those responsible for agriculture, housing, health, education, environment, culture and oil.
Many were appointed less than a month ago when Assad announced a new cabinet in the wake of controversial parliamentary elections that were boycotted by the opposition.
U.S. officials denied that the timing of the sanctions was linked to a bombing earlier Wednesday that killed Defense Minister General Daoud Rajha, Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat and General Hassan Turkmani, the head of the regime's crisis cell.
But it appears President Barack Obama’s administration is treating the blast as a potential turning point in the 16-month-old uprising.
“It’s clear that the Assad regime is losing control of Syria,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said, echoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who said earlier that Syria was “spinning out of control.”
Syrian opposition forces have recently appeared emboldened, launching four straight days of attacks in the capital Damascus and claiming responsibility for Wednesday's devastating attack.
But the White House stressed the need for a political transition to avoid a “lengthy and bloody sectarian civil war.”
At the United Nations in New York, the U.S. continued to press for that political solution and a Security Council resolution that would allow sanctions against the regime.
Against Russian and Chinese opposition the vote was pushed back until Thursday.
“We will be voting tomorrow morning,” said Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, whose country took the lead in drawing up the sanctions resolution.
The mandate of the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria, or UNSMIS, ends on Friday and without a resolution the U.N. may have to hurriedly withdraw the nearly 300 unarmed observers now in Damascus.
More than 17,000 people have been killed since a popular uprising against Assad began 16 months ago, activists say.