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U.S. closes embassy in Syria over security concerns

By Elise Labott, CNN Senior State Department Producer
February 6, 2012 -- Updated 1608 GMT (0008 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Britain calls its ambassador home for consultations
  • The U.S. says it is concerned that the embassy "is not sufficiently protected"
  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the final call, senior officials say
  • Poland will serve as the U.S. protecting power in Syria

Washington (CNN) -- The United States shuttered its embassy in Syria and pulled out its remaining staff Monday after the government refused to address its security concerns, the State Department said.

Officials said 17 employees, including Ambassador Robert Ford, left the country. Two employees flew out of Syria last week by commercial air, with the rest of them, including Ford, traveling by convoy Monday morning to Jordan. Most of the staff was evacuated earlier in the year. The diplomatic team already had been reduced in December.

Syria was notified about the decision to pull the staff and close the embassy after the employees were out of the country, State Department officials said.

"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," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement. "We, along with several other diplomatic missions, conveyed our security concerns to the Syrian government but the regime failed to respond adequately."

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Ford remains the U.S. ambassador "to Syria and its people," the statement said. "As the president's representative, he will continue his work and engagement with the Syrian people as head of our Syria team in Washington. 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."

Assailing "the escalation of violence in Syria caused by the regime's blatant defiance of its commitments to the action plan it agreed to with the Arab League," Nuland said the U.S. decision to close its embassy highlights "the dangerous path" that President Bashar al-Assad "has chosen and the regime's inability to fully control Syria. It also underscores the urgent need for 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."

Syria did not immediately respond on state-run news agency SANA.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said his country has called its ambassador home for consultations. And, in remarks to the House of Commons, Hague called on Syria to keep the British Embassy in the country safe.

A senior State Department official told CNN the Syrian government "is getting stretched beyond its ability to control the various elements of violence in the country."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the final call about the embassy after the department management and security staff presented her with their concerns and recommendations, State Department officials said.

"This is a decision we never take lightly. Our embassies are a very important part of our diplomacy around the world," one official said.

Officials believe the recent deadly car bombings at the offices of two Syrian security branches in Damascus bear the hallmarks of al Qaeda.

While the United States has no hard proof that al Qaeda was responsible and has no specific intelligence that the group is planning an attack against the embassy, one senior official said the embassy was "a significant potential target."

"I'm more concerned about a suicide bombing than I am a mob at the embassy," one senior official told CNN, noting that the embassy has been a previous target of extremist groups. "There is a shadow of instability across the country."

Poland will serve as the U.S. protecting power in Syria, just as Turkey protected U.S. interests in Libya when the embassy there was closed. Switzerland serves as protecting power for the United States in Iran.

The Polish Embassy in Damascus will assist U.S. citizens in Syria who face trouble, but the State Department says it does not think many American citizens remain in the country, given that the department issued numerous travel warnings over the past several months strongly urging Americans to leave the country. The officials said most remaining Americans in Syria are believed to be dual nationals who live there.

Last month, the State Department had said it was considering closing the embassy, issuing a statement saying, "we have serious concerns about the deteriorating security situation in Damascus, including the recent spate of car bombs, and about the safety and security of embassy personnel.

"We have requested that the government of Syria take additional security measures to protect our embassy, and the Syrian government is considering that request," the State Department said at the time. "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 U.S. Embassy is right off a busy street in Damascus. Officials said the United States and countries with similar concerns asked Syrian authorities to restrict traffic and add barriers around the embassies, steps the government had taken around government facilities, but they refused. Officials said they expected other governments to follow suit and close their embassies.

In October, the United States pulled Ford after he was attacked by what a U.S. official described as an "armed mob" in Damascus. About 100 pro-government protesters tried to storm a meeting, which was not in the embassy, between Ford and opposition leader Hassan Abdul Azim, trapping Ford and others for more than an hour. Later, his convoy was attacked.

Ford, who has been outspoken against the Syrian government's use of violence against protesters, is seen by Syrian government supporters as an activist more than a diplomat. He returned to Syria in December.

The move does not mean the United States. is breaking diplomatic ties with Damascus. Although contacts between the two governments are minimal, formal relations will remain intact. Washington did not break ties with Tripoli during the NATO campaign against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

CNN's Jill Dougherty and Josh Levs contributed to this report.

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