US pulls envoy to Syria, citing safety

Assad loyalists targeted Robert Ford for criticizing regime’s crackdown.

Robert Ford and Assad 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Sana Sana)
Robert Ford and Assad 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Sana Sana)
The United States has pulled its ambassador out of Syria because of what it said were credible threats to his safety after his public support for protesters led to attacks on his embassy and diplomatic convoy by supporters of President Bashar Assad.
Robert Ford left as a crackdown on protests and a nascent armed insurgency intensified despite Western condemnation, and more businesses and shops closed in southern Syria in the most sustained strike of the seven-month uprising.
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His departure signals a further deterioration of relations between Syria’s rulers and Washington, which has called for Assad to step down and deepened sanctions on Damascus to include the country’s small but key oil sector.
“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 on Monday. “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.”
Asked if the US had any plans to expel the Syrian ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, a US official said: “Not at this time.” Meanwhile, a trip by the Iranian foreign minister to Syria and Lebanon was cancelled because of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s condemnation of the “killings” in Syria, Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper reported Monday.
Ali Akbar Salehi was due to meet with Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour, President Michel Sleiman, and Prime Minister Najib Mikati during his visit. Diplomatic sources told the newspaper the visit had been cancelled after Ahmadinejad criticized the seven-month crackdown on protesters in Syria, a key Iranian ally. Ahmadinejad’s trip would have included Syria and other Arab countries, but those visits have all been cancelled.
“Nobody has the right to kill others, neither the government nor the opponents,” Ahmadinejad told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria this weekend.
“We are going to make greater efforts to encourage both the government of Syria and the other side, all parties, to reach an understanding.”
Iran has distanced itself from its longtime ally in recent weeks, but Ahmadinejad’s comments reflect an unprecedented hardening of tone between the two countries.
“Damascus, unsatisfied with Ahmadinejad’s position, has informed Iran’s foreign minister through diplomatic channels that Syria has no desire to welcome him during his upcoming tour of the region,” a diplomatic source told the Daily Star. “For this reason, the trip was cancelled altogether.”
On the ground in Syria, two people were killed in Homs – 140 kilometers north of Damascus – on Monday when troops and loyalist militiamen fired at majority Sunni Muslim districts that have been a bastion for protests and, lately, a refuge for army defectors leading armed resistance emerging there, residents said.
Ford left Syria over the weekend, a Western diplomat told Reuters, following a series of incidents that resulted in physical damage but no casualties.
“Articles, more inciting against Ford than usual, have appeared in state media recently.
He left on Saturday,” said one of the diplomats, who like others asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue.
At the end of September, Assad loyalists threw concrete blocks at his convoy and hit the cars with iron bars as Ford was visiting a centrist politician, according to an account published by the ambassador the next day.
In July, several Assad loyalists broke into the US Embassy in Damascus, tore down signs and tried to break security glass.
They also attempted to break into Ford’s nearby residence but failed to gain entry.
The mounting security clampdown has triggered a strike by private businesses in towns across the Hauran Plain, which was the first region where masses publicly turned against Assad.
With troops concentrating on urban centers, protests have expanded in rural regions, including some areas that were once bedrocks of Sunni support for Assad and are seeing defections from the military and armed resistance.
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 Deraa, ignoring a 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.