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U.S. Embassy in Syria Closes as Violence Flares

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The United States closed its embassy in Syria on Monday and withdrew its staff in the face of escalating mayhem for which American officials blamed the Syrian government’s unbridled repression of an 11-month-old uprising.

The move was another dramatic moment in a week full of them, as the confrontation in Syria turned even more violent and more unpredictable. Diplomatic efforts have largely collapsed, save for a Russian delegation visiting Damascus on Tuesday, and both the Syrian government and its opposition have signaled that each believes that the grinding conflict will be resolved only 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 must surrender power.

“This is a doomed regime as well as a murdering regime,” he told 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 in a rugged northern region around the town of Idlib, the city of Homs has witnessed the most pronounced violence. Opposition groups said government forces again shelled the city, despite international condemnations of a similar attack on Friday and Saturday that they said killed more than 200 people.

Another grim toll was reported Monday in the city, Syria’s third largest. The Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group that seeks to document the violence, said government forces killed 47 people in the hardest-hit neighborhoods, especially Baba Amr and Khalidya. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the number at 43. There was no way to independently confirm either number.

“The situation is so miserable,” said a 40-year-old man 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.”

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

The government has flatly denied the tolls quoted by opposition groups. On Saturday, it said Homs was quiet. State-run news media placed blame for the violence Monday on “armed terrorist groups” firing mortars within Homs. In a statement, the Interior Ministry said that it was seeking “to restore security and stability to Homs,” and that six members of the security forces and “scores of terrorists” had been killed.

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

“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,” said a spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland. American officials said the embassy staff 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.”

It stopped short of a formal break in 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 at any time in the four decades since Mr. Assad’s family took power, the government was emboldened by the vetoes of Russia and China on Saturday of a United Nations Security Council resolution backed by Western and Arab states supporting a plan to end the bloodshed. The vetoes appeared to end, for the moment, any concerted diplomatic efforts.

Instead, countries traded barbs. Mr. Hague called the vetoes “a betrayal of the Syrian people.” Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, was scornful of the criticism, saying it was “perhaps on the verge of hysterical.” In China, a commentary in the Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily argued that the chaos that followed the toppling of governments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya proved that forced leadership changes only made matters worse. “Simply backing one side and beating down the other, seemingly helpful, will in fact only sow seeds of future disasters,” said the article, signed Zhong Sheng, an often-used pseudonym that can be read to mean “China’s voice.”

Throughout the uprising, Homs, near the Lebanese border in western Syria, has served as a barometer of the shifting dynamics. Demonstrations erupted there in the beginning 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 a city strewn with trash and suffering shortages of food and electricity.

Defectors and their armed allies control some neighborhoods, and the army has resorted to shelling that residents call indiscriminate. Many residents have lamented the violence and hardship, though the opposition to Mr. Assad seems to have broad support among the city’s Sunnis.

“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.

“What is going to happen is more killing and more brutality, this I am sure of. He will not leave unless we kick him out by force,” he said of Mr. Assad. “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.”

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

“All the young guys are getting armed, even university students,” said Ammar, a 21-year-old university student there, 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.’ ”

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 officers and captured others at a checkpoint in Jabal al-Zawiyah, near Idlib, a rugged region also near the Turkish border. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported 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.


Published: February 6, 2012


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