The United States has pulled its ambassador out of Syria because of what it said were credible threats to his safety after his public support for protesters led to attacks on the U.S. Embassy and his diplomatic convoy by supporters of President Bashar al-Assad.
Syria immediately followed suit by recalling its envoy to Washington for consultations, signaling a further deterioration of relations between Syria's rulers and Washington, which has called for Assad to step down and deepened sanctions on Damascus to include the country's small but key oil sector.
U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford left as a crackdown on protests and a nascent armed insurgency intensified despite Western condemnation and more businesses closed in southern Syria in the most sustained strike of the seven-month uprising.
"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 Monday.
"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."
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Ford was expected to return to Syria and demanded the Syrian government provide for his protection and end what she called a "smear campaign of malicious and deceitful propaganda" against him."
"The concern here is that the kinds of falsehoods that are being spread about Ambassador Ford could lead to violence against him, whether it's by citizens, whether it's by ... thugs of one kind or another," she said.
In the central city of Homs, 140 km (85 miles) north of Damascus, two people were killed when troops and loyalist militiamen fired at majority Sunni Muslim districts that have been a bastion for protests and, lately, a refuge for army defectors leading armed resistance emerging there, residents said. Syria is dominated by Assad's minority Alawite sect.
The killings bring to at least 10 the number of civilians killed in tank-backed assaults on districts in Homs in the last two days, activists said.
The official Syrian news agency said "terrorist groups" fired at a shared taxi carrying university students in Homs on Sunday night, killing a young woman. Security forces arrested several members of other groups and seized automatic weapons and automatic rifles and Molotov cocktails.
A Youtube video shot by activists purportedly showed a young protester dying from a gunshot that hit him while he was dragging a body off a street in al-Khalidiya district. Their comrades are heard shouting "God is greater" as the two bodies lay next to each other on the asphalt.
Reuters could not confirm the authenticity of the footage. Most foreign media have been banned from Syria, making it difficult to verify events on the ground.
Syrian authorities say they are fighting "armed terrorist groups" in Homs who have killed civilians, security forces and prominent figures.
They blame the unrest across the country on such groups, which they say have killed 1,100 army and police. The United Nations says the crackdown has killed 3,000 people, including 187 children.
A spokeswoman for the Syrian embassy in Washington, Roua Sharbaji, said Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha had been recalled to Damascus for consultations on Monday.
Ford left Syria over the weekend, a Western diplomat told Reuters, following a series of incidents that resulted in physical damage but no casualties.
"Articles, more inciting against Ford than usual, have appeared in state media recently. He left Saturday," said one of the diplomats, who like others asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue.
At the end of September Assad loyalists threw concrete blocks at his convoy and hit the cars with iron bars as Ford was visiting centrist politician Hassan Abdulazim, according to an account published by the ambassador the next day.
"One person jumped on the hood of the car, tried to kick in the windshield and then jumped on the roof," Ford wrote on the U.S. Embassy's Facebook page on Sept 30. "Another person held the roof railing and tried to break the car's side window.
"...Syria's problems come not from foreign interference but from intolerance -- the same kind of intolerance we saw in front of Abdulazim's office. Unfortunately, those problems now are growing worse and more violent."
In July several Assad loyalists broke into the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, tore down signs and tried to break security glass. They also attempted to break into Ford's nearby residence but failed to gain entry.
The mounting security clampdown has triggered a strike by private businesses in towns across the Hauran Plain, which was the first region where masses publicly turned against Assad.
Anger has grown over the killings of several protesters last week in the towns of Dael and in Ibtaa. The region has seen nightly protests in solidarity with Homs.
"Troops have entered into several towns to end the strike but protesters want to expand it into wider civil disobedience," said one activist who said army reinforcements had been sent to several towns in the Deraa countryside.
In Deraa city, capital of the agricultural province, businesses across the city were closed for the fourth day. In the town of al-Hirak to the east, the strike picked up steam in the last two days, activists said.
'More defiant than ever'
"This strike is intensifying every day as more businesses shut and people become more defiant than ever angered by the increasing brutality and daily roundups and arrests," said one Deraa resident who gave his name as Abu Abdullah.
With troops concentrating on urban centres, protests have expanded in rural regions, including some areas which were once bedrocks of Sunni support for Assad and are seeing defections from the military and armed resistance.
The 46-year-old president is from the Alawite community, which dominates the state, the army and security apparatus in the majority Sunni Muslim country.
In an interview with Reuters last month, Ford said Assad was losing support among key constituents and risked plunging Syria into sectarian strife between Sunnis and Alawites by intensifying the military crackdown.
Ford also infuriated Syria's rulers with his high profile gestures of support for the seven-month-old grassroots protest movement demanding an end to 41 years of Assad family rule.
He was cheered by protesters when he went in July to the anti-Assad hotbed city of Hama, which was later stormed by tanks. He also visited a town that had witnessed regular protests in Deraa, ignoring a ban on Western diplomats traveling outside the Damascus area.
Along with a group of mostly Western ambassadors, Ford later paid condolences to the family of Ghayath Matar, a 25-year-old protest leader who had distributed flowers to give to soldiers but was arrested and died of apparent torture, activists say.
Washington, seeking to convince Assad to scale back an alliance with U.S. arch-foe Iran and backing for militant groups, acted to improve relations with Damascus after President Barack Obama took office in 2009.
Obama sent Ford to Damascus in January to fill a diplomatic vacuum prevailing since Washington withdrew its envoy in 2005.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved Ford's nomination, with Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., praising Ford for continuing to visit cities under siege and "speak truth to power."
Kerry said Ford has been steadfast "despite even being physically attacked and assaulted by the regime's goons."
But relations deteriorated anew after the uprising broke out and Assad ignored international calls to respond to protester demands that he dismantle the Syrian police state and allow political pluralism.