The United States has pulled its ambassador to Syria back to Washington over concerns about his safety, the State Department announced today.
Ambassador Ford has spoken out publicly against the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and has been a target of intimidation from the regime. Ford was attacked by a mob and pelted with eggs and tomatoes as he visited a prominent dissident in late September.
"At this point, we can't say when he will return to Syria. It will depend on our assessment of Syrian regime-led incitement and the security situation on the ground. We hope that the Syrian regime will end its incitement campaign against Ambassador Ford," Toner added.
A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the sensitive diplomatic issue, said Ford plans to return to Syria "soon," but declined to say when. Ford left Damascus on Friday and arrived back in Washington on Saturday.
The official said the decision to bring Ford back to Washington was not caused by a single specific threat against his life, but rather due to an increasingly hostile "campaign of incitement" against him in state-run media. Officials say the move was motivated only by security concerns, and tried to prevent it from being seen as a diplomatic row. As such, a U.S. official said Obama administration has no plans to expel Syria's ambassador to Washington.
The Syrian embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ambassador Ford has been a thorn in the regime's side since he arrived in Damascus in the beginning of the year. Ford and the U.S. embassy have been the target of intimidation for months as he has led the charge in speaking out about abuses by the regime against peaceful protestors, and he has been harassed by pro-Assad crowds more than once.
In July Ford visited the restive city of Hama, without notifying the Syrian Foreign Ministry in advance as he was required to do, to show solidarity with the protestors. He was greeted by cheering crowds that threw roses and palm leaves on his car.
Upon his return to Damascus, pro-Assad crowds demonstrated in front of the U.S. Embassy and eventually tried to storm its gates. They damaged the exterior of the building, hung Syrian flags from its walls, and some made it on top of the wall before embassy guards finally chased them away with a threat of force.
The embassy demanded reparation for the damage and protested the slow response of Syrian security, which is treaty-bound to protect diplomatic facilities. According to U.S. officials the damage was never paid for and the Syrian security forces remained slow to protect the ambassador and the embassy.
The incident did not deter Ford from visiting other rebellious cities, including Deir al Zour and Jassem, later in the summer. As a result the Syrian regime demanded that Ford and other foreign diplomats request permission before leaving the capital.
Last month a pro-Assad crowd pelted Ford with eggs and tomatoes as he walked to a meeting with a prominent dissident leader. His security detail locked him in the dissident's office for hours before Syrian security finally arrived to disperse the crowd. Vehicles from the U.S. embassy that were dispatched to retrieve him were also damaged by the crowd.
A U.S. official says the Syrian government has not yet responded to a demand for payment for the damage to the embassy vehicles.