The Obama administration charged Friday that Lebanon-based Hezbollah is assisting Syria's military crackdown and announced new sanctions against the group and the government of President Bashar Assad.
The announcements were timed to precede Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's meetings today with Syrian opposition leaders in Turkey. Clinton also plans to pledge an additional $5.5 million in U.S. humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees. On Friday, Britain said it is giving an additional $7.8 million in aid to the opposition, including communications equipment, body armor and medical supplies.
The new U.S. measures are unlikely to placate Syrian rebel forces who have asked for military equipment and aerial protection in their increasingly bloody fight against Assad. Nor are the measures likely to please critics at home who charge that President Barack Obama is sitting on the sidelines of a humanitarian crisis and a battle that threatens U.S. security interests in the region, current and former U.S. officials said.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has said the United States should work with allies who are already supplying weapons to the rebels.
Armed with some tanks and heavy weapons supplied by Persian Gulf states or captured from the Assad army, the rebels have made significant gains in recent days, although not enough to shift the military balance of the 17-month conflict.
On Friday, rebel forces acknowledged losing ground in the face of heavy government bombardment in the city of Aleppo, Reuters reported.
The new U.S. sanctions on Hezbollah are likely to have more symbolic than substantive effect. The Shiite militia, whose political wing dominates the government in neighboring Lebanon, has long been supported by Iran and Syria.
Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen said the new action was "not solely focused on the immediate financial impact" but was designed "to expose" Hezbollah activity in that country.
Separately, the administration imposed new sanctions on Syria's state-run oil company, Sytrol, under the Iran Sanctions Act, which sharply limits energy-sector trade. According to the Treasury, Syrian shipments in April of 33,000 metric tons of gasoline to Iran — worth $36 million — benefited both countries, with Iran paying Syria with diesel fuel, used in military vehicles.