February 6th, 2012
10:54 AM ET

Why leave Syria

By Elise Labott

One telltale sign a country is on the verge of collapse is when the U.S. embassy shutters its doors and gets out of Dodge. That threshold has now been crossed in Syria.

After weeks of pleading with Syrian authorities to beef up protection of the U.S. Embassy to no avail, the State Department was forced to pull out its skeleton staff and close the embassy. Most of the staff members were evacuated earlier in the year, and the diplomatic team was further reduced last month.

The decision to close the embassy is a big one, one not made easily. U.S. officials insist the move does not mean Washington is severing relations with Damascus.

But even though the United States isn't ending diplomatic ties, it will be sure to look that way on the surface - especially given the very public calls by everyone in the Obama administration, from the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on down - for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

Even though officials said the decision to close the embassy was based solely on security concerns, the move will likely be seen as a message to Syria that "we are done with you."

The officials point to Libya, where the United States did not formally cut ties when it closed its embassy in Tripoli and it is not doing so with Syria. The closing of the embassy means only that the embassy is temporarily suspending operations and taking its people out.

Ambassador Robert Ford and the embassy staff will continue its work at the State Department's Washington headquarters, just as Gene Cretz, U.S. ambassador to Libya, set up a temporary embassy on the sixth floor of Foggy Bottom.

Ford, who has been outspoken against the Syrian government's use of violence against protesters, left for two months in October after he was attacked by what the United States called an "armed mob" in Damascus. Since his return in December, Ford has been able to get around the country, meeting with opposition figures and bearing witness to the government's crackdown.

But the ever-deteriorating security situation, coupled with the fact the government refused to add barriers and restrict traffic around the embassy, which is on a busy Damascus street, made it untenable for Ford and the remaining U.S. personnel remain there. When presented with the facts and the potential for danger to the embassy staff, Clinton made the call.

Heightened concerns about security come in the wake of last month's deadly car bombings at the offices of two Syrian security branches in Damascus. U.S. officials say the blasts bear the hallmark of al Qaeda.

While there is no conclusive evidence al Qaeda was involved, officials have more than a hunch that the group is operating in the country and, amid the shadow of instability currently in Syria, believe the United States is a significant potential target.  Right now, the State Department is more concerned about a suicide bomb in front of the embassy than an angry mob throwing tomatoes.

Poland will now serve as the "protecting power" of U.S. interests in Syria, just as Turkey protected U.S. interests in Libya last year and as Switzerland has served as the U.S. protecting power in Iran since the United States broke relations with Tehran in 1979.

The Poles will look out for the remaining U.S. citizens in Syria in the event they need to get out of trouble. The State Department believes most Americans have already left the country, and those who haven't are dual nationals who live there. The State Department has sent numerous travel advisories warning Americans to leave Syria while commercial travel is available, stopping short of screaming "get the -- out."

Ford's departure is sure to prompt other countries, which have voiced similar security concerns, to follow suit, leaving a black hole in both independent observers to the violence and outreach to the opposition.

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