WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration has pulled its ambassador home from Syria, arguing that his support for anti-Assad activists had put him in grave danger. It was the most dramatic action so far by the United States as it struggles to counter a Mideast autocrat who is withstanding pressure that has toppled neighboring dictators.
Syria responded quickly yesterday, ordering home its envoy from Washington.
Ambassador Robert Ford was temporarily recalled on Saturday after the United States received "credible threats against his personal safety in Syria," the State Department said, pointing directly at President Bashar Assad's government.
Ford had been the subject of several incidents of intimidation. He has enraged Syrian authorities with his forceful defense of anti-Assad demonstrations and his harsh critique of a government crackdown that has now claimed more than 3,000 lives.
Calling Ford back to the United States is short of a full diplomatic break, but represents the collapse of the administration's hopes that it could draw Assad toward government changes and a productive role fostering Mideast peace. Washington held off on a full condemnation of Assad as his crackdown worsened this spring, and waited months to demand that he step aside.
Ford's presence in Damascus had been an important symbolic part of President Barack Obama's effort to engage Syria, which was without a U.S. ambassador for years after the Bush administration broke ties over Syria's alleged role in the 2005 assassination of a political candidate in neighboring Lebanon.
With Moammar Gadhafi's death last week in Libya, and the revolutions that toppled longtime leaders Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Assad is among the Arab Spring autocrats left standing. Along with Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, he is facing the most pressure from his citizens to leave power. Yet with his vast security network and close links with Russia and China, Assad is perhaps the one best placed to withstand pressures for change.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, "We are concerned about a campaign of regime-led incitement targeted personally at Ambassador Ford by the state-run media of the government of Syria."