The United States on Wednesday imposed its most sweeping sanctions ever targeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to choke off revenue for his government in a bid to force it back to United Nations-led negotiations and broker an end to the country's nearly decade-long war.
The toughest round of sanctions on Syria which Washington said were the first taste of a deeper and broader pressure campaign against Assad come at a time when the Syrian leader is grappling with a deepening economic crisis after a decade of war and amid a rare outbreak of protests in government-held areas.
The new travel restrictions and financial sanctions strike Assad's inner circle, including his wife Asma whom, along with her family, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described as "one of Syria's most notorious war profiteers." They also target Assad's brother, sister, a few senior generals and Iranian militia.
In a statement announcing the designations imposed under executive orders and the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act - the latter signed by President Donald Trump in December - Pompeo said the new steps were the start of a "sustained campaign" of economic and political pressure against Assad, and vowed more in the coming weeks.
"We anticipate many more sanctions and we will not stop until Assad and his regime stop their needless, brutal war against the Syrian people and the Syrian government agrees to a political solution to the conflict," Pompeo said.
Syria has already been under US and European Union sanctions that have frozen the assets of the state and hundreds of companies and individuals. Washington already bans export and investment in Syria by Americans, as well as transactions involving oil and hydrocarbon products.
But the new sanctions can freeze the assets of anyone dealing with Syria, regardless of nationality, and cover many more sectors. It also targets those dealing with entities from Russia and Iran, Assad's main backers.
In a call with reporters, a senior administration official said investment plans in areas, including in reconstruction, that were to aid Assad's government had already fizzled out due to fear of the Caesar Act. "It's meant to keep the foreign investors out," he said.
Several analysts agreed.
"If you are engaging in these sectors, you will be cut off from the US financial system, which is the most powerful in the world. For you as a company, you choose between that and investing in a broken country," said Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Syrian authorities blame Western sanctions for widespread hardship among ordinary residents, where the currency collapse has led to soaring prices and people struggling to afford food and basic supplies.
In a call with reporters, US. Special Representative for Syria Jim Jeffrey said the economic pressure on Assad currently was worse than at any time, adding that Washington was also seeing some signals, albeit modest, from Moscow that Russia was having some doubts about supporting Assad.
"We are seeing somewhat a greater willingness of the Russians to at least explore with us and with our friends in the European Union...and with individual Arab countries possible steps to ease the crisis in Syria," he said.
US officials have said those designated have all played a key role in obstructing a peaceful political solution to the conflict. But both Pompeo and Jeffrey singled out Asma al-Assad.
"Asma al-Assad contributes personally in enough ways to the horrors that are today in Syria to merit being sanctioned in her own right, not just as the wife of President Assad," Jeffrey said.