August 1, 2011 -- The U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, has returned to Washington for consultations, the State Department said today.
Ford's departure, prior to yesterday's deadly attacks on protestors, comes as violence in Syria has worsened and as the United States and its allies prepare to step up the pressure on the Assad regime this week. Ford is also scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill later this week, and one official said he is expected to return to Syria next week.
"Whether he stays for that hearing, given events on the ground in Syria, or returns to deal with the situation -- it's unclear. We're assessing it," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
Officials say the United States is preparing further punitive measures against the Syrian government, though one official ruled out closing the U.S. embassy in Damascus or kicking out the Syrian ambassador to Washington. Today the European Union also announced new sanctions on Syria.
This afternoon the United Nations Security Council is meeting to discuss Syria and consider a long-standing British and French proposal to increase international pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to reform or step down. That effort has been blocked in the past by Russia and China, which hold veto power. A U.S. official says it is too soon to tell whether today's meeting will bear fruit.
Ford, who arrived in Damascus in January only after a recess appointment by President Obama in December, is expected to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday for a confirmation hearing. Last year Ford's nomination was blocked by Republican senators who said sending an envoy to Damascus would only reward the Assad regime for its bad behavior in the region.
In recent weeks Ford has blunted that criticism by making bold statements criticizing President Assad's violent response to the peaceful protests against his rule that have spread throughout Syria in recent months.
Last month Ford traveled to the restive city of Hama, where dozens were reported killed yesterday, and his car was showered with roses and olive branches by those protesting the Assad government. He did so without informing the Foreign Ministry and state-run television encouraged its supporters to respond by demonstrating in front of the U.S. embassy. After days of protests, a group of protestors stormed the embassy grounds, making it on top of the building and stealing the American flag before U.S. Marine guards on site chased them away.
The U.S. has slowly ratcheted up the pressure on President Assad to step down. The Obama administration has been reluctant to call for his departure. In a May 19 speech on this year's uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, President Obama only called on Assad to reform or get out of the way. Last month, in unscripted remarks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally declared that Assad had lost legitimacy. Meanwhile the U.S. Treasury Department has added sanctions on elements of the Syrian regime who are believed to be responsible for the brutal crackdown on protestors.
In a Facebook posting following his trip to Hama, Ambassador Ford slammed the Assad regime in an unusually blunt statement. Yesterday, his spokesman at the embassy used even more undiplomatic language to describe recent violence as "horrific and murderous, and vile and repulsive." U.S. officials in Washington say he was slapped down by colleagues for those remarks.