U.S. officials are searching hard for signs that the inner circle of Bashar Al-Assad may be fracturing, as at least one high ranking minister has apparently defected to opposition. The country's deputy oil minister announced via YouTube yesterday that he was stepping down because he did not want "to retire serving the crimes of this regime." The man, identified as Abdo Hussam el Din, may not be the most pivotal cog in the Syrian machine, but he is the biggest official to quit the regime since the uprising began. It's also an extremely bold move considering that soldiers who defect from the army have been targeted for the harshest treatment by Syrian forces if captured.

The defection coincides with a report in The Washington Post that intelligence officials are monitoring large financial transactions made by Syrian elites with ties to Assad. The movement of millions of dollars of funds through foreign accounts could have any number of explanations, but some in the U.S. are wondering (wishful thinking?) if it's a sign that the country's elites are preparing to bolt. At the very least, it seems to suggest that Syria's wealthiest citizens may be "hedging their bets" out of concerns that the government might fall and take them (or their assets) down with it. Those elites are the key to Assad remaining in power, especially if international forces remain unwilling to intervene.

Meanwhile, the crackdown continues as the international community continues to be stymied in its efforts to stop the fighting diplomatically. Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan will travel there this weekend on behalf of the Arab League, but there's little hope that more talks will do any good. China and Russia continue to block attempts by the Security Council to sanction or interfere on behalf of the opposition and the Pentagon remains leery of a military response. The violence shows no sign of slowing however, as government forces reportedly fired on a funeral procession in Damascus this morning, according to Reuters.