The United States closed its embassy in Damascus on Monday and President Barack Obama vowed to ratchet up pressure on Syrian leader Bashar Assad to step down, even as world powers remained divided over how to end the crisis.
"The recent surge in violence, including bombings in Damascus on December 23 and January 6, has raised serious concerns that our Embassy is not sufficiently protected from armed attack," Victoria Nuland, State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement. "We, along with several other diplomatic missions, conveyed our security concerns to the Syrian government but the regime failed to respond adequately.
The Polish government, through its embassy in Damascus, will now represent U.S. interests in Syria. The State Department also issued a travel warning, recommending that U.S. citizens in Syria "depart immediately, given ongoing violence and a deteriorating security situation."
Meanwhile, Britain recalled its ambassador to Syria for "consultation," while also summoning the Syrian ambassador in London to the Foreign Office to hear a British protest over the violence.
On Monday, Obama told ABC News that "the Assad regime is feeling the noose tightening around them." Speaking on the "Today" show, Obama said that "we're going to just continue to put more and more pressure until hopefully we see a transition."
While threatening Damascus with further sanctions and diplomatic isolation, Obama made clear that the United States had no appetite for military intervention like the NATO bombing campaign that helped toppled Libya's Muammar Gadhafi last year.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Monday said there “are telltale signs that Assad's future is very limited at best.”
“Those who voted against the resolution (at the UN Security Council) need to realize that betting everything on Assad is a recipe forfailure, not just for the interests of those countries, but for the stability of the region and for Syria's future,” he said.
The U.S. Embassy in Syria has been a point of controversy both in Washington and in Damascus for a while.
When President Obama nominated Robert Ford in 2010 as the first U.S. ambassador to Syria in five years, he was accused of pandering to Assad's regime. As a result, the nomination got stuck at the Senate, and Obama had to circumvent the Senate with a recess appointment.
But Ford's audacious behavior after protests broke out in Syria - meeting with opposition leaders, visiting grieving families and cities under government forces attack - changed the atmosphere in Congress. Suddenly, with the absence of real leverage to influence the Syrian regime, Ford was the most visible symbolic expression of U.S. support for the Syrian people, fighting for their rights.
When the Senate became convinced that Ford was a source of annoyance to the Syrian regime rather than a "prize," his appointment was confirmed.
Being in Syria, however, became increasingly unsafe for American and other foreign diplomats. The embassy building, ambassador's residence and diplomats themselves were attacked and harassed several times by mobs.
In October last year Ford was recalled from Syria due to the "credible threats" to his safety, only to return later to "pick up where he left off, continuing to meet with opposition leaders,” as State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland defined it.
On Monday, Nuland said that Ford will head a Syria team in the U.S.
"The expectation is that Ambassador Ford will continue to maintain the contacts that he has broadly across Syrian society, but particularly with Syrian opposition, so that we can make sure that the Syrian people know that we stand with them and their desire for a democratic future," Nuland said.
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