The United States on Monday closed its embassy in Syria and pulled out its staff, including Ambassador Robert Ford, over security concerns, the State Department said.
“The United States has suspended operations of our Embassy in Damascus as of February 6. Ambassador Ford and all American personnel have now departed the country,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
At least 5,400 people have been killed in the Syrian government's 11-month crackdown on protesters, according to the UN. Syrian authorities blame the violence on armed gangs affiliated with al-Qaeda and say more than 2,000 soldiers and police have been killed.
Nuland’s statement comes as the Syrian army launched one the fiercest assaults on the city of Homs in the 11-month uprising. Fifteen people are believed to have been killed so far on Monday, according to the BBC.
“The recent surge in violence, including bombings in Damascus on December 23 and January 6, has raised serious concerns that our Embassy is not sufficiently protected from armed attack,” Nuland said, adding that the Syrian government “failed to respond adequately” to U.S. security concerns.
The spokeswoman said Ford left Damascus but remains the U.S. ambassador to Syria and its people.
“As the president’s representative, he will continue his work and engagement with the Syrian people as head of our Syria team in Washington,” she said.
“Together with other senior U.S. officials, Ambassador Ford will maintain contacts with the Syrian opposition and continue our efforts to support the peaceful political transition which the Syrian people have so bravely sought,” the spokeswoman said.
Nuland called on the international community to “act without delay to support the Arab League’s transition plan before the regime’s escalating violence puts a political solution out of reach and further jeopardizes regional peace and security.”
Russia and China vetoed the draft resolution criticizing Damascus over the weekend, claiming it lacked balance. Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s envoy to the UN, said it targeted Assad’s government but contained no measures against rebel armed groups.
The vetoes drew a barrage of criticism from Western powers and the Syrian opposition.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said on Saturday that Washington was "disgusted" by the Russian and Chinese veto on the draft, and that “all further bloodshed” that could follow will be on the two countries’ conscience.
Some Western countries have been trying to persuade Moscow to support a resolution effectively authorizing a military operation, but Russia has repeatedly insisted that the Western drive for a stronger crackdown on Syria is preparation for a “Libyan scenario.”
In Libya, rebels ousted and killed long-standing dictator Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011 after a months-long military standoff in which they received assistance from NATO forces.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday said the UN Security Council was too hasty in putting the new Morocco-submitted Syria resolution to a vote.
“It is unfortunate that the [resolution’s] co-authors decided to put it to a vote urgently, although we had asked them to delay it for several days so that we could discuss the situation after [Russian Foreign Intelligence Service head] Mikhail Fradkov and I visit Damascus on February 7,” he said.
“Nothing would have changed if they had waited three days,” Lavrov told reporters after talks with Bahrain’s foreign minister in Moscow.
The State Department has repeatedly reduced its staff in Damascus due to security concerns. It said on January 21 that it does not rule out that the mission could be closed.