US: 'Credible threats' in Syria ambassador pullout

Syrian regime behind incitement campaign against Robert Ford including series of incidents involving physical damage but no casualties.

Robert Ford and Assad 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Sana Sana)
Robert Ford and Assad 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Sana Sana)
The US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, was pulled out of the country because of threats against his personal safety, the State Department said on Monday.
Ford, who had upset Syrian leaders as protesters challenged 41 years of rule by the Assad family, has returned to Washington.
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"Ambassador Robert Ford was brought back to Washington as a result of credible threats against his personal safety in Syria," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. "At this point, we can't say when he will return to Syria. It will depend on our assessment of Syrian regime-led incitement and the security situation on the ground."
Robert Ford left Syria over the weekend, the Western diplomats told Reuters, following a series of incidents that resulted in physical damage but no casualties.
Asked if the Obama administration would force Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha to leave the United States, a US official said: "Not at this time."
Ford, a veteran diplomat, infuriated Syria's rulers by getting in touch with a seven-month-old grassroots protest movement demanding an end to 41 years of Assad family rule.
Ford was cheered by protesters when he went in July to the anti-Assad hotbed city of Hama, which was later stormed by tanks. He also visited a town that had witnessed regular protests in the southern province of Deraa, ignoring a new ban on Western diplomats traveling outside the Damascus area.
Along with a group of mostly Western ambassadors, Ford later paid condolences to the family of Ghayath Matar, a 25-year-old protest leader who had distributed flowers to give to soldiers but was arrested and died of apparent torture, activists say.
Washington, seeking to convince Assad to scale back an alliance with US arch-foe Iran and backing for militant groups, acted to improve relations with Damascus after President Barack Obama took office in 2009. Obama sent Ford to Damascus in January to fill a diplomatic vacuum prevailing since Washington withdrew its ambassador in 2005.
But relations deteriorated anew after the uprising broke out and Assad ignored international calls to respond to protester demands that he dismantle the Syrian police state and allow political pluralism.
In an interview with Reuters last month, Ford said Assad was losing support among key constituents and risked plunging Syria into sectarian strife by intensifying a military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.
Time was running against Assad, he said at the time.