US closes Syrian embassy and orders diplomatic staff back to Damascus

Paul Lewis — The Guardian March 18, 2014

The United States announced the closure of Syria’s embassy in Washington on Tuesday and ordered its diplomatic staff to return to Damascus.

Daniel Rubinstein, the special envoy for Syria, said the embassy had already suspended consular services.

“This week marks the three-year anniversary of the Syrian revolution. For three years, Bashar al-Assad has refused to heed the call of the Syrian people to step aside,” he said in a statement to reporters.

Rubinstein said the decision to close the embassy, as well as honorary consulates in Troy, Michigan, and Houston, Texas, was “in consideration of the atrocities the Assad regime has committed against the Syrian people”.

He added: “We have determined it is unacceptable for individuals appointed by that regime to conduct diplomatic or consular operations in the United States.”

More than 150,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict, on both sides.

Attempts by Washington and Moscow to supervise a peace agreement have so far failed, and the prospects have significantly worsened with the deterioration of US-Russia relations over Ukraine.

It is not known how many Syrian diplomatic staff worked in Washington, Troy and Houston. The mission in the capital is a large, red-brick mansion in Kalorama, an area that hosts many of Washington’s embassies.

The Syrian embassy announced on its website last week that it “would not be able to proceed any consular services” from Tuesday. A US official said the decision by Syria to terminate consular services explained why Washington ordered the closure of the embassy, which no longer had a purpose.

The Syrian ambassador left Washington over a year ago, leaving behind a slimmed-down staff to continue some consular operations, such as provision of visas.

Jen Psaki, press secretary for the State Department, said that the embassy and two consulates were staffed by only “a handful” of diplomats.

Diplomats have been given until March 31 to leave the country, she said. Administrative staff have been given until April 30 to “shutter” the consular services.

“They’re diplomatic status is no longer recognised,” she said. “We’re closing the embassy.”

The US suspended its embassy’s operations in Damascus in September 2012.

Rubinstein said Syrian staff working in the embassy and consulates “are no longer permitted to perform diplomatic or consular functions” and must leave the country unless they are US citizens or lawful permanent residents.

He added that the ejection of Syrian diplomats did not mean full termination of diplomatic relations with Damascus.

“Despite the differences between our governments, the United States continues to maintain diplomatic relations with the state of Syria as an expression of our longstanding ties with the Syrian people, an interest that will endure long after Bashar al-Assad leaves power,” he said

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