U.S. sticking with 'Plan A' for Syria

By Jamie Crawford

With the situation in Syria seemingly deteriorating by the day, the United States is doing what it can to pressure Bashar al-Assad to step aside, but that goal is nowhere in sight, a senior administration official said Wednesday.

"As it relates to what Plan B is for Syria, we're still on Plan A," Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough said at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar. The event was sponsored by the Brookings Institution.

Following a massacre in the Syrian village of Houla this past weekend that left scores of children and villagers dead, McDonough said the United States continues to support the joint United Nations/Arab League plan, led by Kofi Annan, which is deploying monitors into Syria.

But McDonough acknowledged that simply putting monitors in Syria is not going to stop the carnage.

"The Annan plan is part of Plan A, but we're not betting the farm on the Annan plan," he said.

One of the reasons the United States is sticking to the current path is because U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and others have conceded there is no Plan B at this point.

As the violence in Syria enters its 15th month with thousands left dead in its wake, pressure is growing on Capitol Hill for the Obama administration to do more to find a solution that gets al-Assad to leave power.

McDonough said "Plan A" also needs to include a "credible political transition process" that paves the way for al-Assad's exit. That aspect of the plan has been hampered by Russia's reluctance to endorse proposal after proposal put before the U.N. Security Council.

"We don't believe it's in Russia's interest to be associated with the Assad regime," McDonough said, "and certainly it's not in the interest of the region for this kind of barbaric activity to continue."

The United States continues to press Russia both publically and privately to sign on to an internationally accepted transition plan for Syria. And the new president of France, Francois Hollande, has said he will be engaging Russia on the same front in the days and weeks ahead.

Another part of "Plan A" is a multilateral effort led by the United States to strangle al-Assad's economic lifeline though sanctions.

The United States sanctioned a Syrian bank Wednesday that was acting as a front for two previously sanctioned banks in an effort to help those banks circumvent the restrictions, the Treasury Department said.

The government of Qatar announced "corresponding actions," the Treasury Department said, ordering all Qatari financial institutions to cease transactions with the same bank.

"Today's action will add to the economic pressure on the Assad regime by closing off a key evasion route," David S. Cohen, treasury under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a written statement announcing the action. "The Treasury Department, working with others around the world who share our goal of ending the brutal repression of the Syrian people, will continue to close off the Assad regime's access to the international financial system."

The Syria International Islamic Bank had been acting for or on behalf of the Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank, and the Commercial Bank of Syria, Syria's largest commercial bank, to allow them to evade sanctions imposed on those institutions by the United States, the European Union and the Arab League.

The Treasury Department announced sanctions in August 2011 against the Commercial Bank of Syria, and its subsidiary, Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank, for their support of Syrian and North Korean proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

In a conference call with reporters, Cohen said the Commercial Bank of Syria was once a "key financial lifeline" for the Assad regime.

Through the implementation of additional sanctions targeting the Assad regime by the United States and its allies, Cohen said, the sanctions were having a "very significant impact on the economic situation in Syria," by cutting off the regime's ability to export oil, by far its most significant avenue for government revenues.

The regime has significantly drawn down on its financial reserves Cohen said "without ready means to replenish" them as a result of the ongoing sanctions drive.

In designating the Syria International Islamic Bank on Wednesday, Cohen said, the bank had surreptitiously facilitated financing of almost $150 million on behalf of the Commercial Bank of Syria, while also facilitating several large payments for the Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank, including a payment to a proliferation entity.

The Treasury Department will host a meeting of the "Friends of Syria," next week in Washington to focus on ways to strengthen existing sanctions, and to discuss further ways to ratchet up the pressure on the Assad regime.

CNN's Jill Dougherty contributed to this report