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 has halted 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.
The State Department notified Syria that it must immediately suspend 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.
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 longstanding ties with the Syrian people.”
Anti-government 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 against 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.