WASHINGTON – The Obama administration dispatched its Syrian envoy back overseas Friday, despite protests from those who said the move sent the wrong message to Damascus at a time when it is slaughtering opposition protesters.

At the same time, a bipartisan coalition representing more than half of the US House of Representatives wrote a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to expand the sanctions available to him under the Syria Accountability Act, which gives him several options for sanctions but does not mandate they all be imposed.

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The letter, co-authored by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros- Lehtinen (R-Florida) and Ranking Member Howard Berman (D-California), called on him to implement the existing provisions at his disposal to prohibit American companies from doing business in Syria and to block any transactions involving Syrian interests in the United States.

“We share your concern for the Syrian government’s unconscionable brutality and violence in response to calls for real political reform,” they wrote, along with 221 other members from both parties.

“The US and all responsible nations must impose the strongest possible sanctions on the murderous Syrian regime,” they said.

Meanwhile, the US State Department issued a travel warning Friday evening urging Americans to immediately leave Syria “while commercial transportation is available,” and told all those outside the country to defer travel there.

“Syrian efforts to attribute the current civil unrest to external influences may lead to an increase in anti-foreigner sentiment.

Detained US citizens may find themselves subject to allegations of incitement or espionage,” the announcement stated. “Syrian government constraints on observers, including the short-term detention of accredited diplomats, have made it difficult for US Embassy personnel to adequately assess the current risks or the potential for continuing violence.”

State Department spokesman Mark Toner described the decision to return Ambassador Robert Ford to that environment as one that would boost the US efforts to end Syrian President Bashar Assad’s crackdown and lead to a democratic transition.

“He will remain engaged with the Syrian government to make clear that the Assad regime’s brutal repression of the Syrian people must cease immediately,” Toner explained.

“He also will continue to engage with the Syrian people as they strive to exercise their universal human rights.”

He added, “The United States will continue to support the Syrian people in their efforts to begin a peaceful and orderly transition to democracy in Syria and to have their aspirations realized.”

During his trip to Washington last week, Ford met with US President Barack Obama and testified before the Senate, which will need to reconsider his appointment as he currently has only a temporary post.

Elliott Abrams, who was a senior adviser on the Middle East in the George W. Bush National Security Council, argued on Friday that the US had more to gain by keeping Ford home.

“The argument that the State Department makes is he’s very useful there,” according to Abrams, but he added, “He can’t bear witness.

He can’t go back to Hama. If he is now left only in Damascus, not because of us of course but because of the Assad government... his utility diminishes.”

Abrams concluded, “If it turns out that he can’t see anybody and he can’t go anywhere, the symbolic importance of removing him, the final break with the regime, is smart.”

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