The Obama administration expanded its net of sanctions on Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime on Tuesday, banning Americans from doing business with the country's foreign minister and two other senior officials as it seeks to further pressure authorities to halt a five-month crackdown on protesters.
The Treasury Department's action also blocks any assets in the United States belonging to Walid al-Moallem, Assad's foreign minister since 2006; senior adviser Buthaina Shaaban; and Ali Abdul-Karim Ali, Syria's ambassador to Lebanon.
The United States already had hit more than 30 Syrian officials, including Assad himself, and firms with sanctions. President Barack Obama on Aug. 18 also banned any U.S. import of Syrian oil or petroleum products, and froze all Syrian government assets subject to American jurisdiction.
"Building on our sanctions targeting the entire government of Syria, we are bringing additional pressure to bear today directly on three senior Assad regime officials who are principal defenders of the regime's activities," said David S. Cohen, the Treasury Department's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.
It is unclear what effect the American sanctions have had so far. The U.S. has isolated Syria for decades and has little leverage with a regime that it has long accused of fomenting terrorism through its support of militant anti-Israel groups Hezbollah and Hamas, and now of violating the rights of Syrian citizens in a brutal crackdown on popular dissent.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the three officials were sanctioned for "propagating and advancing the reign of terror the Assad regime is exacting on its own people."
Al-Moallem served for nearly a decade as the Syrian ambassador in Washington. In July, he threatened to restrict the American and French ambassadors to the capital of Damascus after they traveled to the restive city of Hama and expressed their solidarity with protesters.
Shaaban has served for years as a trusted adviser to Syria's president and his father, Hafez Assad, who died in 2000. She is the most prominent woman in the Syrian regime.
The Treasury Department said Ali has close ties to Syria's intelligence and serves as the Assad government's primary link to Lebanon.
Despite the sanctions, Nuland said the Obama administration's ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, would still be willing to meet with al-Moallem in Damascus _ however unlikely that now seems.
Republicans in Congress have assailed Obama's decision to send an ambassador to the Syrian capital after a five-year absence, calling it an unwarranted reward for the Assad government's anti-American positions. Their criticism has grown stronger as more have been killed in the uprising, which the U.N. says totals more than 2,200 Syrians.
But the administration has defended Ford's continued presence in Damascus, insisting that he is providing valuable information on the tumult across Syria while offering moral support to the protesters.
A video uploaded last week on YouTube shows how unpopular Ford has become with some Assad loyalists, who confronted him after a sit-in by Syrian lawyers and attempted to drape him in a poster celebrating the Syrian president.
Nuland said "pro-government thugs" were behind the stunt. She called it a "cynical effort" to portray Ford as the driving force behind the demonstration, when they "should have been paying attention to their own lawyers protesting peacefully." She said Ford's guard force was able to help him leave the scene, and expressed no concerns about his security.