It has been more than a year since the United States government withdrew its ambassador to Syria and closed its embassy in Damascus.
On Thursday, that ambassador returned to the region along with a U.S. delegation, touring a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey to bring more attention to the growing humanitarian crisis. As the civil war has intensified in Syria, hundreds of thousands of people have sought refuge in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and other neighboring countries.
Ambassador Robert Ford gave an exclusive interview to CNN's Ivan Watson and described what the U.S. is doing to help the refugees and the Syrian opposition.FULL STORY
The U.S. ambassador to Syria says the Syrian regime is slowly starting to crumble.
Ambassador Robert Ford said in an exclusive interview with CNN's Ivan Watson while touring the Islahiye refugee camp in Turkey that it is a slow process, but the signs are pointing toward decline.
"Members of the regime, little by little, are flaking off," Ford said, noting that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's mother had fled the country and is now in the United Arab Emirates.
The former Foreign Ministry spokesman is now a refugee in the United States, Ford said. (Update, 9:11 p.m. - Senior administration officials tell CNN that the ambassador misspoke and that the Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman is not in the U.S.)
Ford said it is a slow process, but al-Assad’s government is falling apart.
"You can see, little by little, the inner core is weakening," Ford said. "But again, it's a gradual process."
Ford said when the U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met with al-Assad in December, the closeness of the fighting was evident.
"He told us that you could hear artillery outside the president's office," Ford told Watson. "The fighting is getting that close now to the inner circle itself. And so you can imagine what that does to their own spirits, their own morale."
By Jamie Crawford with reporting from Jill Dougherty, Elise Labott and Pam Benson
The United States is closely watching how rebel forces operate inside Syria, and what their end objectives might be as the Obama administration weighs whether or not to provide arms to the Syrian opposition.
"Will providing arms to the opposition convince the people who support [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad, in many cases because they are afraid of their own existence, or will it simply lead to more fighting - that is the question that we are considering," Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, said during a panel discussion in Washington on Thursday on the crisis in Syria.
"Arms are not a strategy, arms are a tactic," Ford said about the deliberation the administration is undertaking on the question, and that a "military solution" is not the best path forward for Syria.
"The president has never taken the provision of arms off the table," he said. "And so, as we think about our policy of sending arms or not, and today we do not, we want to make sure that tactic plays into and helps us achieve a strategy of enabling the Syrian people to reach a political solution."
By Elise Labott
In the weeks before he defected from Syria, then-Prime Minister Riad Hijab put feelers out to contacts in the United States and other governments.
In addition to ensuring his family got out of the country, Hijab wanted guarantees that he would not be persecuted for his role in the government of President Bashar al-Assad, U.S. officials say.
"He wanted assurances from the opposition that a post-Assad Syria will take into account all Syrians, including minorities, and there will not be revenge attacks on those who at one time supported the regime," one administration official said. The official described Washington's role as that of a "middleman."
The United States was able to produce a chorus of voices from the Syrian opposition promising that Syrians planning for a post-Assad transition are committed to ensuring human rights for all Syrians, including minorities. But that's far from a guarantee for Hijab or for any defector.
By Jamie Crawford, with reporting from Barbara Starr, Pam Benson, Arwa Damon and Ivan Watson
The defection of four senior Syrian military officers to the Syrian opposition this week is another sign that senior officials are turning away from the government of President Bashar al-Assad, the United States said Friday.
"We have had four senior Army officers - two brigadier generals and two colonels - defect yesterday and join the opposition," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters. "We have been calling for many, many weeks for members of the military to vote with their consciences and to break ties with Assad, and to refuse orders and to refuse to participate in the violence that's ongoing. So we are beginning to see this stream accelerate, and that's a good thing."
The defections came the same week a Syrian pilot landed his military jet in neighboring Jordan and announced his defection. Nuland said U.S. officials had not yet been in contact with the Syrian pilot, but were in contact with Jordanian authorities.
While there's no sign of collapse by Assad's most elite military units, the rank and file may be less loyal. Opposition sources say that some Syrian troops are deliberately missing their targets. U.S. officials say there is no way to confirm the reports, but the opposition forces are strong enough that Assad's most elite units cannot always respond everywhere they are needed.
By Elise Labott, CNN Foreign Affairs Reporter
Expectations are low for Sunday's Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul, where representatives from more than 70 nations and international organizations will gather to discuss ways to hasten the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad.
The reason is simple. The most critical piece is missing: Plan B.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made no secret of her frustration with the opposition Syrian National Council's inability to offer a vision for a post-al-Assad Syria that all Syrians can sign on to. This week, Clinton said the United States would be "pushing them very hard" to present such a vision in Istanbul.
She's not alone. Many a senior administration official has summed up the SNC in two words: "A mess."
By Elise Labott
The United States is considering closing its embassy in Damascus, Syria because of security concerns, two senior U.S. officials tell CNN.
The embassy has only a "handful" of staff working with Ambassador Robert Ford. Most of the staff were evacuated earlier in the year and the diplomatic team was further reduced last week.
"We have had increasing concerns of the safety of our personnel, one senior State Department official said. "We have not made any decisions but it is under serious consideration."
The U.S. has asked the Syrian government for increased security around the embassy. In October, the U.S. pulled Ford after he was attacked by what a U.S. official described as an "armed mob" in Damascus. He returned in December.
"Our decisions will be based on that" another senior official said. "It is not clear they will do what we need." FULL POST