US, UK take diplomatic steps over Syria violence

State Dep't announces its embassy has suspended all operations, Hague recalls ambassador to Syria.

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
February 7, 2012 00:41
Syrian demonstrate against Assad

Syrian demonstrate against Assad 390 R. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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The United States shuttered its embassy in Syria on Monday and Britain said it would recall its ambassador, as diplomatic pressure against Damascus grew amid reports that 50 more Syrians had been killed by regime fire.

Activists said the fatalities occurred during a sustained assault on Homs, a center of armed opposition to President Bashar Assad.

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Washington said all its embassy staff had left the country due to worsening security.

Still, US President Barack Obama said that however hard Western countries are leaning on Assad diplomatically, they have no intention of using force to topple him as they did against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya last year.

“I think it is very important for us to try to resolve this without recourse to outside military intervention. And I think that’s possible,” he told NBC’s Today show.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland 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.”

Nuland said Robert Ford would retain his position as US ambassador to Syria and would work together with his team from Washington.

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“Together with other senior US officials, Ambassador Ford will maintain contacts with the Syrian opposition and continue our efforts to support the peaceful political transition, which the Syrian people have so bravely sought,” she said.

In London, the UK foreign secretary said he had recalled Britain’s ambassador in Syria.

“I have today recalled to London our ambassador in Damascus for consultations,” William Hague said.

Calling the Syrian government “a doomed regime as well as a murdering regime,” Hague said there was no way it could recover its credibility internationally or with its own people.

He welcomed the idea of a new Arab-led group of “Friends of Syria” and said Britain would be “a highly active member in setting up such a group with the broadest possible international support.”

The US and France have both floated the idea of a “Friends of Syria” or a contact group to tackle the Syria crisis. Western countries are scrambling to find a new diplomatic strategy after failing to enact a UN Security Council resolution that would have backed an Arab League call for Assad to stand aside.

UN Secretary-General Ban Kimoon said he was “appalled” by the violence, which he described as “totally unacceptable before humanity.”

Condemnation of Russia’s veto has been extraordinarily strong by diplomatic standards.

French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said on Monday: “There are political cultures that deserve a kick in the ass... To accept that a dictator can operate freely is disgraceful for governments that accept it.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who is due in Damascus on Tuesday, said condemnations of Moscow’s veto had verged on “hysteria.”

China also vetoed the measure, following Russia’s lead according to most accounts.

Sirwan Kajjo, a Syrian-Kurdish journalist and activist based in Washington, said the US embassy closure was a welcome move.

“It was expected. It’s the first step towards other countries – France and Germany – closing their embassies as well,” he told The Jerusalem Post.

Syria’s main Kurdish groups support a devolution of central power from Damascus and autonomy in the northeastern area of the country where most Kurds reside.

Kajjo said many Syrian Kurds would welcome foreign military intervention in the country as well.

“Even if Russia and China hadn’t vetoed the UN draft, it wouldn’t have changed much – at the end of the day it was just a condemnation,” he said. “People on the ground have been asking for military intervention for months.”

Kajjo said new efforts to tighten sanctions on Syria were not likely to have an appreciable effect on the ground.

“Look how many sanctions there have been, but nothing has happened,” he said.

“Even before the uprising, Syria didn’t have significant economic relations with the West.”

On Monday Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby said Syria’s latest escalation was pushing the country toward civil war.

“We follow with great anxiety and irritation developments in the field situation in Syria, and the escalation of military operations in the city of Homs and rural areas of Damascus, and the Syrian armed forces’ use of heavy weapons against civilians,” he said. Elaraby said the escalation took the crisis in Syria in “a serious direction” and “in a slide towards civil war.”

Kajjo, however, said the threshold of civil war has already been crossed.

“Civil war has already begun,” he said. “What was happening in Homs two months ago could already qualify as a civil war.”

The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had the names of 29 people killed in Monday’s bombardment of the city. Television footage showed smoke rising from buildings, with explosions echoing in the background.

“They want to drive the Free Syrian Army out,” said a resident of the beleaguered Baba Amro quarter, referring to the force of army deserters and rebels who have held parts of Homs for months.

“Rockets are falling seconds apart on the same target.”

Another resident said activists had obtained information that the shelling would continue until Thursday, when troops were expected to move into Homs.

“We have no one but God – everybody abandoned us,” he said.

Assad’s opponents say tanks and artillery killed more than 200 people in Homs on Friday night in the bloodiest incident of the 11-month-old uprising against his rule.

The latest offensive by Assad’s forces may have been planned for some time, and was signaled in a speech last month when he vowed to strike “terrorists” with an iron fist.

Also Monday, activists said an explosion ripped through an oil pipeline feeding a main refinery in Homs, the second attack on the pipeline in a week. They said the opposition- held town of Zabadani, near the Lebanese border, also came under fire on Monday.

A local wing of the Free Syrian Army in Zabadani warned it would start attacking “sensitive and strategic [targets] of the regime” unless the army pulled back from the town by Tuesday morning.

Syrian army defectors announced they were organizing a new “Higher Revolutionary Council” to supersede the Free Syrian Army as the main armed force battling Assad’s rule. The new body would be commanded by Gen. Ahmed al-Sheikh, the highest-ranking officer to defect to Turkey from government forces.

“After consultations with defectors across the homeland and after careful organization of their ranks, the formation of a Higher Revolutionary Council to Liberate Syria has been agreed in response to the call of freedom and ahead of freeing Syria from this gang,” a statement from the new group read.

Hilary Leila Krieger and Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.

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