Its hands largely tied, the Obama administration pressed nations Monday to sever financial ties to Syria as part of an admittedly laborious strategy to pressure President Bashar Assad's government into ending its brutal crackdown on protesters. Progress was seen in Turkey's blunt demand Monday for Assad to halt the violence.
The sanctions reflect the U.S. government's limited leverage with a regime it has isolated for decades, and American unwillingness to entertain military options. Instead, diplomacy is progressing at a snail's pace, with U.S. officials acknowledging that travel bans, asset freezes and other measures have done little so far to force Assad's embattled dictatorship to halt its repression, let alone initiate a historic transition toward democracy.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday that Assad must "cease the systematic violence, mass arrests and the outright murder of his own people."
"By his actions he has demonstrated that he has lost legitimacy to lead," Carney said, adding that President Barack Obama has no doubt that Syria will be better off without him. He said the U.S. would be looking to apply further sanctions against Assad's government, but it was unclear if that was the extent of the administration's "or else" part of the equation.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland insisted Monday that sanctions, if extended globally, can make it harder for Syria's government to continue with its "abhorrent" attacks on demonstrators. The Treasury Department hit Syria's biggest commercial bank and mobile telephone operator with new sanctions last week, though the immediate effect was likely marginal because of the already severely restricted U.S. economic ties with Syria.
"There are countries out there still putting money into the coffers of the Syrian regime," Nuland said. "Our emphasis at the moment is on working with as many countries as possible to have them sanction as strongly as they can, because this will work if there are not holes in it."
The question is whether this strategy can work fast enough.
The latest reports out of Syria suggest people in the coastal city of Lattakia came under fire from gunships in the Mediterranean Sea. Combined with ground attacks there and elsewhere, Assad is pressing on with a dramatic escalation in a five-month crackdown that activists say has killed more than 1,700 people. And his government shows no sign of relenting.
Some diplomatic progress came Monday in Turkey's blunt demand for a halt to the violence. Turkey, a key NATO ally and until recently a close partner of Syria, will respond with unspecified steps unless the bloodshed ends "immediately and without conditions or excuses," said Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who visited Damascus last week in an unsuccessful bid to get Assad to pull back his troops.
Even with Turkey's possible support for a more aggressive response to Syria, there is probably little space for the U.S. to change tactics. Right now it is putting the onus on other countries to force Assad's hand.
Europe is mulling oil and gas sanctions against Syria, which would affect a stream of money that amounts to more than a quarter of the government's revenue. China and India have been more reticent, though Nuland said the U.S. would continue to seek their support. Without them, any hard-hitting U.N. Security Council action against Syria would be impossible.
Nuland couldn't confirm whether Syrian gunships were actually being used to attack civilians, but said the government's use of armor and firing on innocents were reprehensible enough. She also tacitly recognized some of the frustrations with the slow advance of diplomacy against Assad's regime.
"Everybody wants the killing to stop now," she said. "It should never have started, let alone gone on for as long as it has."
The U.S. and its partners are trying to make the Syrian government feel the pain of international condemnation and limited trade, she said.
"So far they do not appear to be listening," Nuland said. "But we do believe that there is more that can be done."