Syria recalls its envoy from Washington in tit-for-tat move

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Syria's ambassador to the United States has been recalled to Damascus, official Al-Ikhbariya television said on Monday, amid an escalating spat that has seen Washington call home its envoy to Syria due to safety concerns.

“Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Mustapha, will leave Washington for Damascus to hold consultations with Syrian leaders,” the report said. There were no further details.

Earlier on Monday a U.S. embassy official in Damascus said that ambassador Robert Ford, an open critic of President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on political dissent, has left Syria indefinitely for security reasons.

“Ambassador Robert Ford was brought back to Washington as a result of credible threats against his personal safety in Syria,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

“At this point, we can't say when he will return to Syria. It will depend on our assessment of Syrian regime-led incitement and the security situation on the ground.”

Asked if the United States had any plans to expel the Syrian ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, a U.S. official said: “Not at this time.”

Robert Ford left Syria over the weekend following a series of incidents that resulted in physical damage but no casualties, Western diplomats told Reuters earlier.

“Articles, more inciting against Ford than usual, have appeared in state media recently. He left on Saturday,” said one of the diplomats, who like others asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Ford, a veteran diplomat, infuriated Syria’s rulers by getting in touch with a seven-month-old grassroots protest movement demanding an end to 41 years of Assad family rule.

Haynes Mahoney, the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy, emphasized Monday that Washington had not formally recalled Ford, according to The Associated Press.

Rising death toll

As many as 22 people were killed by the fire of security and military forces across Syria on Sunday, Al Arabiya reported on Monday citing the Syrian Local Coordination Committee, as Damascus welcomed to host national dialogue conference under the sponsorship of the Arab League.

Most of the deaths were reported in the city of Homs, where a number of successive explosions were heard by residents, accompanied by gunfire, at the Bab al-Sebaa street and the Deir Baalaba neighborhood, activists told Al Arabiya.

Explosions and intensive gunfire were also heard in Hama and Deraa, where electricity shortcut was reported across the town, according to Syrian activists.

Hama’s history is steeped in blood. An estimated 20,000 people were killed there in 1982 when the army put down an Islamist revolt against the rule of Assad’s late father, Hafez al-Assad.

Military troops and tanks stormed the town of al-Jassem and violent crackdown was launched by the security forces in Jabal al-Zawia, Al Arabiya reported.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad came under increased international pressure Sunday as he appointed two new governors in flashpoint provinces.

Activists meanwhile called fresh protests on Sunday under the slogan: “It’s your turn” -- a reference to Assad -- hoping to force him out of power in the way Libyans ended the rule of Muammar Qaddafi.

Meanwhile, Damascus is set to send a delegation to the Arab League on Wednesday. Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said that “Damascus is committed to apply integrated reforms along the coming six months.”

Muallem said that national dialogue will be launched next month, expressing Syria’s approval that the Arab League and other countries as Brazil and India could be the sponsors of the dialogue on the Syrian soil, Al Arabiya reported.

EU threatens more sanctions

The European Union, meanwhile, welcomed moves by Syria’s opposition groups to establish a united front, The Associated Press reported.

Last month, a 140-member Syrian National Council was established in an attempt to unify the fragmented opposition to Assad.

The EU described the creation of the council as a positive step forward. It again urged Assad must to step aside to allow a political transition to take place.

EU president Herman Van Rompuy said at the close of a summit in Brussels that European Union leaders were ready to slap more sanctions on Damascus failing a halt in the regime’s violence against dissenters.

EU leaders “expressed grave concern over continued brutality against the population in Syria,” Van Rompuy said, adding that if the violence did not stop the bloc “will impose restrictive measures against the regime,” AFP reported.

The bloc has issued several rounds of sanctions against the regime of President Assad, extending sanctions against members of his inner circle to banks and the oil sector.

The EU leaders also issued a fresh call to Assad to step aside and allow a political transition amid more reports of fatalities in a crackdown on dissent.

Also upping the pressure, U.S. Senator John McCain raised the prospect Sunday of possible armed intervention to protect civilians in Syria.

“Now that military operations in Libya are ending, there will be renewed focus on what practical military operations might be considered to protect civilian lives in Syria,” McCain told a World Economic Forum meeting in Jordan.

State television said Assad named new governors for the northwestern province of Idlib and for the Damascus governorate, both of which have seen massive anti-regime demonstrations over the past seven months.

Assad has sacked several governors since the wave of protests erupted in mid-March, including the Hama governor who was dismissed in July after a record 500,000 protesters rallied there against the regime.

Yasser Salman al-Shufi was named as Idlib’s new governor while Makhluf Makhluf was appointed governor for the Damascus province.

Syria has barred most foreign media from the country, making it hard to verify reports from activists and authorities, according to Reuters.

The United Nations says 3,000 people have been killed in Assad’s crackdown on protests, 187 of them children. Syrian authorities blame armed groups for the violence and say 1,100 soldiers and police have been killed since March.