U.S. orders Syria to close embassy in Washington

U.S. orders Syria to close embassy in Washington
A Syrian man evacuates a child found after government forces dropped a barrel bomb in Aleppo. The Obama administration ordered Syria to close its embassy in Washington “in consideration of the atrocities the Assad regime has committed against the Syrian people.” (Khaled Khatib, AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration marked the third anniversary of the start of Syria's civil war Tuesday by ordering Damascus to close its embassy in Washington and expelling its diplomats, though it did not break diplomatic relations with President Bashar Assad's government.

The order was issued "in consideration of the atrocities the Assad regime has committed against the Syrian people" and because Syria had stopped providing consular services, Daniel Rubinstein, the new U.S. special envoy for Syria, said in a statement.


"We have determined it is unacceptable for individuals appointed by that regime to conduct diplomatic or consular operations in the United States," he said.

In an appearance with students at the State Department, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said U.S. officials came to view the embassy's operations as an "insult."

"We've all seen the pictures of the emaciated corpses. You can't believe you're in 2014," he said. "And so we just felt the idea that this embassy is sitting here with representation that we could take seriously is an insult, and we closed it. It's that simple."

Syria, which has accused the U.S. government of harassing its diplomats, has been winding down embassy operations for some time. The ambassador left in 2011, and only a few staff members remain, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, and last week the embassy announced the suspension of consular services.

Psaki denied that U.S. officials had been harassing Syrian diplomats.

The State Department notified Syria that it must immediately suspend remaining operations at its embassy in Washington, and at its honorary consulates in Houston and Troy, Mich. Syrian diplomats at those posts who are not U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents must depart the United States by March 31.

Calls to the Syrian Embassy went unanswered Tuesday. A notice on its website said the embassy would not handle any consular business starting Tuesday.

Rubinstein said the United States would maintain diplomatic contact with the government in Damascus "as an expression of our long-standing ties with the Syrian people."

Antigovernment protests that erupted during the "Arab Spring" in 2011 soon evolved into a grinding civil war between Assad's military and an array of rebel groups. The conflict has claimed more than 100,000 lives.

President Obama threatened to launch airstrikes on Syrian military targets last summer after the White House accused Syrian forces of using poison gas against civilians. Assad later agreed to allow international monitors to collect and destroy his chemical weapons arsenal, although Syria has failed to meet several deadlines.

Tuesday's announcement came as Syrian troops, who have been gaining the upper hand in recent months against the rebellion, pressed an offensive along the nation's border with Lebanon.

Government troops backed by militiamen from Lebanon's Hezbollah movement were in hot pursuit Tuesday of rebels in Yabroud after recapturing the town on Sunday, the official news agency reported. The state media said that troops succeeded in "destroying terrorist hide-outs" and killing opposition fighters southwest of the town. Syrian officials routinely refer to rebels as "terrorists."

The government has made the cutting of rebel supply lines from neighboring Lebanon a priority.

The fighting close to the border has led to an increase in violence in Lebanon, which has suffered a series of attacks linked to the Syrian war.

After the Sunday takeover of Yabroud, a car bomb exploded in an eastern Lebanon town populated mostly by Shiite Muslims, killing two members of Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group. An Al Qaeda-linked Sunni Muslim faction took responsibility for the attack and said it was in retaliation for the "rape" of Yabroud.

Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.