Syria and US withdraw ambassadors – Ewen MacAskill
The US has withdrawn its ambassador to Syria over fears for his safety in the face of what officials said was a growing campaign of incitement against him being orchestrated by the regime.
The Syrian government quickly ordered home its envoy to Washington, raising the diplomatic stakes.
US officials said there had been credible threats against Robert Ford’s life and accused the Syrian government of failing in its international obligations to protect him. Ford, who is back in Washington after leaving Damascus at the weekend, angered the Syrian government by aligning himself with Arab spring protesters.
Defying a travel ban on diplomats travelling outside Syria’s capital, he regularly spoke to leaders of the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. Unconventional by US diplomatic standards in his outspokenness, Ford communicated directly with the protesters through Twitter and Facebook.
The tit-for-tat withdrawals add to tensions between Damascus and Washington, which has called on Assad to stop using violence against peaceful protesters and step down from power.
The US state department stressed that Ford’s return home did not amount to a formal breakdown in relations and that his deputy, Haynes Mahoney, would remain in Damascus to carry out his duties.
Mark Toner, a state department spokesman, said: « Ambassador Robert Ford was brought back to Washington as a result of credible threats against his personal safety in Syria. 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. »
A US embassy official in Damascus said: « Ambassador Ford’s presence is a benefit to our mission in Syria as he has worked diligently to deliver our message and be our eyes on the ground. This decision was based solely on the need to ensure his safety, a matter we take extremely seriously. »
In an immediate response, the Syrian ambassador Imad Moustapha promptly left the US, said Roua Shurbaji, a Syrian embassy spokeswoman. She told the Associated Press no other steps were being taken by the embassy and declined to comment on the US allegations.
Washington-Damascus relations have been strained for decades with the US listing Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism. Barack Obama, on becoming president in January 2009, made various peace overtures to Assad, but has given up in the face of the violent crackdown on protesters in Syria.
Ford had been in the job less than a year. The US had recalled its ambassador to Syria in 2005 in protest against the alleged involvement of Damascus in the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Ford’s arrival in Damascus in January coincided with the US push to improve relations.
But the protests began a few months later and relations with the US have worsened as Assad opted for a violent crackdown on protesters. Ford has established himself as outspoken in support of the protesters. Accompanied by the French ambassador, he was greeted with olive branches and roses by cheering protesters in July when he made an unscheduled visit to Hama, the centre of the revolt, angering the Syrian government.
Last month, his convoy was targeted by pro-government mob in Damascus as he headed for a meeting with Hassan Abdul-Azim, head of the outlawed Arab Socialist Democratic Union. The office where the two met was also attacked.
US officials at the time said embassy vehicles were seriously damaged but Ford was unharmed.
Ford has advocated non-violent protest, arguing that taking up arms could lead to the kind of sectarian mass killings seen in Iraq.
He wrote on Facebook last month: « This isn’t about Western military intervention. This isn’t about oil (many governments have banned its import). This isn’t about Israel or the West wanting to dominate the Arab world (an old, discredited government line). This is about basic political freedoms from the United Nations’ human rights charter – signed by Syria, don’t forget – which calls for freedom of speech and freedom of peaceful assembly. »
Ford has been repeatedly criticised by Syria’s state-run media. The decision to leave on Saturday came after the appearance of more articles critical of him.
Speculation has grown since the death of the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi last week that Syria might be the next target for western intervention, though Obama administration officials deny it.
The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, in media interviews on Sunday, said that while the US strongly supports the Syrian opposition, there had been, unlike Libya, no request by it for outside intervention.
Middle East analysts argue that Syria would be a more difficult country for military intervention because of the danger of civil war and sectarian violence. There is also nervousness in Washington over whether unrest in Syria could have a knock-on effect on Israeli security.
But in a speech in Jordan on Sunday, Senator John McCain, one of the Republican’s leading foreign affairs specialists, said there were growing calls from the opposition in Syria for some kind of foreign military intervention.
McCain added: « Now that military operations in Libya are ending, there will be renewed focus on what practical military options might be considered to protect civilian lives in Syria. The Assad regime should not assume that it can get away with mass murder. Gaddafi made that mistake, and it cost him everything. »
The Obama administration initially resisted intervention in Libya until faced with the prospect of human rights abuses on a massive scale.
The US vice-president, Joe Biden, last week triggered speculation by saying that the military model used in Libya – US air power in support of rebels on the ground backed by French and British special forces – could be used elsewhere.