US Embassy in Syria Halts Operations as Violence Flares

Beirut, Lebanon — The United States closed its embassy in Syria on Monday and withdrew all staff members amid escalating mayhem in what American officials called the Syrian government’s unbridled repression of an 11-month-old uprising that has become the bloodiest conflict in the Arab revolts.

The confrontation in Syria has turned even more violent and more unpredictable, while diplomatic efforts have largely collapsed, save for a Russian delegation visiting Damascus on Tuesday. Both the Syrian government and its opposition have signaled that each believes the grinding conflict will only be resolved through force of arms.

For weeks, Western embassies have reduced their staffs, and on Monday, Britain also recalled its ambassador for consultations. Echoing a cascade of diplomatic invective, the British foreign secretary, William Hague, described the mounting violence as yet more evidence that President Bashar al-Assad had no option but to surrender power.

“This is a doomed regime as well as a murdering regime,” he said in a statement to the House of Commons. “There is no way it can recover its credibility internationally.”

Though the government has pressed forward with a crackdown in the suburbs of the capital Damascus and a rugged northern region around the town of Idlib, the city of Homs has witnessed the most pronounced violence. Opposition groups said Syrian government forces again shelled the city, despite international condemnations over a similar attack Friday and Saturday that they said killed more than 200 people.

Another grim toll was reported Monday in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city. The Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group that seeks to document the violence, said government forces killed 37 people in the hardest-hit neighborhoods of Baba Amr and Khalidya. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the number at 43, though there was no way to independently confirm either number.

The government has flatly denied the tolls quoted by opposition groups. On Saturday, it said Homs was quiet. State-run media blamed the violence Monday on “armed terrorist groups” firing mortars within Homs, an opposition stronghold.

“The situation is so miserable,” said a 40-year-old owner of a computer shop who gave his name as Ahmed. “Gunfire is falling like rain, and all the stores are closed. We keep hearing unbelievably loud explosions that shake the windows every half-hour.”

Clearly laying the blame on Syria’s president, the State Department said in a statement on its Web site that the United States had “suspended operations of our embassy in Damascus,” and that Ambassador Robert S. Ford “and all American personnel have now departed the country.” Reiterating concerns voiced earlier, it said the closing reflected “serious concerns that our embassy is not protected from armed attack.”

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“The deteriorating security situation that led to the suspension of our diplomatic operations makes clear once more the dangerous path Assad has chosen and the regime’s inability to fully control Syria,” a department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, said. The State Department announcement did not specify where the embassy staff had gone, but American officials said they had relocated temporarily to neighboring Jordan.

The announcement said Ambassador Ford would “continue his work and engagement with the Syrian people as head of our Syria team in Washington.”

The announcement stopped short of a formal break in American diplomatic relations with Syria but was considered a strong signal that Obama administration officials believe there is nothing left to talk about with Mr. Assad. Though more isolated than any time in the four decades since his family took power, Mr. Assad’s government was emboldened by the vetoes of Russia and China on Saturday of a Security Council resolution backed by Western and Arab states on a plan to end the bloodshed.

The resolution’s demise appeared to end, for the moment, any concerted diplomatic attempt to mediate a conflict that has killed thousands.

After the vote, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned of the risk of all-out civil war, and she reiterated the American position that Mr. Assad must relinquish power.

On Monday, Britain joined the chorus of condemnation for Russia and China, with the foreign secretary, William Hague, telling the House of Commons that with their Security Council vetoes they “chose to side with the Syrian regime and implicitly to leave the door open to further abuses” by the Assad forces.

“We regard this as a grave error of judgment by the governments of Russia and China,” he said. “There is no need to mince words about this. Russia and China have twice vetoed reasonable and necessary action by the United Nations Security Council. Such vetoes are a betrayal of the Syrian people. In deploying them, they have let down the Arab League; they have increased the likelihood of what they wish to avoid in Syria — civil war — and they have placed themselves on the wrong side of Arab and international opinion.”

Mr. Hague said Britain had recalled its ambassador to Syria for urgent talks, but he stopped short of the closing its embassy. While Britain was reviewing “all its options” in respect of the Damascus embassy, he said, there were “advantages” in having diplomatic staff on the ground in Syria to keep track of events.

Russia and China lashed out at critics of their vetoes. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, repeated his country’s objections to the resolution, saying that it failed to hold opposition forces accountable for some of the violence and that the vote should have been put off until after Tuesday, when he and the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, Mikhail Y. Fradkov, are to meet with Mr. Assad in Damascus.

Speaking after a meeting with Bahrain’s foreign minister, Mr. Lavrov offered a scornful assessment of the criticism of the vetoes. “There are some in the West who have given evaluations of the vote on Syria in the United Nations Security Council that sound, I would say, indecent and perhaps on the verge of hysterical,” Mr. Lavrov said, according to the Interfax news agency. “Those who get angry are rarely right.”

In China, a signed commentary in the Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily argued that the chaos that followed toppled governments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya proved that forced leadership changes only made matters worse.

The commentary said that “simply backing one side and beating down the other, seemingly helpful, will in fact only sow seeds of future disasters.” It was signed by Zhong Sheng, an often-used pseudonym that can be read to mean “China’s voice.”

It also said that NATO had “abused” the no-flight resolution China had voted with others to allow NATO to establish in Libya, and “supplied one side of the war with firearms.”

“Was the promise on protecting civilians kept?” it asked.
Since the beginning of the uprising, Homs, near the Lebanese border in western Syria, has served as a barometer of sorts of the uprising’s shifting dynamics. Protests erupted there in the beginning of the revolt last March, forging a vibrant culture of protest that has taken hold across the country. It has also seen mounting sectarian strife — pitting a Sunni Muslim majority against minority Alawites, a heterodox sect that provides much of the leadership of Mr. Assad’s government. Lawlessness has mounted, as have vendettas in the streets of a city strewn with trash and suffering from shortages of food and electricity.

Defectors and their armed allies control some neighborhoods, and the army, perhaps deeming it too costly to try to retake them, have resorted to shelling that residents describe as indiscriminate. The government has blamed the violence there on “armed terrorist groups” — the phrase it uses to describe defectors and others.

Many residents have lamented the growing violence and hardship, though the opposition to Mr. Assad seems to have broad support among the city’s Sunni majority. More than any other place, Homs suggests the parameters of a looming civil war.

“We are not hiding in shelters, we are home,” said a resident of the neighborhood of Inshaat who gave his name as Omar. “My friends share lots of these feelings I guess. They stay in rooms far from the street, and they sleep in living rooms and kitchens.”

He predicted more bloodshed in the weeks and months ahead.

“What is going to happen is more killing and more brutality, this I am sure of,” he said. “He will not leave unless we kick him out by force. Protests are necessary but not enough. I see no other choice. Negotiation, sharing, politics are useless with such a regime. He came to power by force and won’t leave it in any other way.”

Explosions could be heard over the phone when speaking with residents in Homs. Videos smuggled out by activists showed a chaotic scene at a medical clinic, as people rushed past doctors and staff, shouting, “Oh God.” In one video, purporting to document the scene, blood smeared the sidewalk outside. Another showed bloodied corpses.

“People can’t leave their homes,” said Omar Shakir, an activist in the city. “Where can they go? It’s the government’s punishment. It’s revenge.”

While peaceful protests remain a facet of the uprising, the sense of a gathering armed confrontation is heard elsewhere, even in citadels of the regime’s support, like Damascus and Aleppo, the country’s second-largest city. As with the Damascus suburbs, fighting has mounted in the hinterland of Aleppo, near the Turkish border.

“All the young guys are getting armed, even university students,” said Ammar, a 21-year-old university student in Aleppo, reached by phone. “I told them don’t, but they said, ‘There is no free army to protect us, so we need to protect ourselves on our own.’”

Though Homs has proven the deadliest locale, government forces have kept up a campaign to retake Damascus’ suburbs and the northern region around Idlib.

The state-run news agency said gunmen had killed three soldiers and captured others at a checkpoint in Jabal al-Zawiyah, near Idlib, which is a rugged region also near the border with Turkey. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported a clash there, saying that insurgents had killed 3 officers and 19 soldiers.

Reporting was contributed by Steven Lee Myers from Washington, Hwaida Saad and an employee of The New York Times from Beirut, John F. Burns from London, Michael Schwirtz from Moscow, Michael Wines from Beijing, and Rick Gladstone from New York.

This story, “US Embassy in Syria Halts Operations as Violence Flares,” originally appeared at The New York Times.