US mulls closing embassy in Syria as security worsens

State Department warns that "concrete steps" must be taken, expresses concern about "deteriorating security situation in Damascus"; US official: Syrian gov't doesn't have much time to address US security concerns.

US Embassy in Damascus 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
US Embassy in Damascus 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON - The United States warned on Friday that it may soon close its embassy in Syria due to the worsening security situation, a move that could exacerbate tensions between Washington and Damascus over its bloody crackdown on protests.
"While no decision has been made, we have serious concerns about the deteriorating security situation in Damascus," the State Department said in a written statement.
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"We have also advised the Syrian government that unless concrete steps are taken in the coming days, we may have no choice but to close the mission," the statement continued.
The US threat came as the White House said it believed Syrian President Bashar Assad no longer had full control over the country, an escalation of US rhetoric against Damascus after 10 months of unrest.
One US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Syrian government did not have much time to address US security concerns.
"We want something to happen sooner rather than later," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding that the decision to shutter the embassy could come soon.
Closing the embassy -- while not tantamount to formally severing diplomatic ties -- would sharply reduce direct communications between Damascus and Washington, which has led a campaign of international sanctions against Syria while making clear it has no appetite for military action.
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White House spokesman Jay Carney repeated on Friday a US call for Assad to halt a bloody crackdown on protesters and to step down, saying his fall was "inevitable" and suggesting that his grip on power was slipping.
"It is clear that's his regime is no longer in full control ... of the country, and is only taking Syria toward a dangerous end," Carney said. "There has been defections of senior military officials and a parliamentary representative recently."
But he gave no further backing for the US claim, saying only that these developments demonstrate momentum against Assad.
Syrian government loyalists attacked both the US and French embassies in Damascus in July, while other crowds attacked several Arab missions in November following the Arab League's decision to suspend Syria from the organization.
The United States in October ordered family members of embassy staff to depart and restricted staffing, and last week ordered an additional reduction in embassy staff as violence continues to build in the country.
The US ambassador in Damascus, Robert Ford, returned to Syria early in December after having been recalled to Washington in October because of threats to his safety.
The Obama administration has repeatedly called for Assad to leave office because of Syria's handling of the protests, which the United Nations estimates has killed more than 5,000 civilians since unrest erupted in March.
At least six people were killed in Syria on Friday, two days before the Arab League decides whether to keep monitors there despite their failure to halt bloodshed. Security men were deployed in restive towns and cities to counter protests against Assad while dozens of his supporters demonstrated in Damascus.
Hundreds of people have been killed since the Arab League monitors arrived in Syria, where an armed insurgency has grown, contesting Assad's hold on several parts of the country.