US closes embassy amid fears of attack


THE US yesterday has its embassy in Damascus and evacuated remaining diplomats as government forces reportedly fired a fresh barrage on the central city of Homs.

The exiled opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) said yesterday that 50 people had been killed when restive neighbourhoods were targeted.

Arab League chief Nabil el-Arabi said the Syrian army’s use of heavy weapons against civilian areas amounted to an escalation that took the country closer to civil war.

US ambassador Robert Ford and his staff made quiet departures yesterday, although some did not have exit visas granted by the authorities.

“The recent surge in violence, including bombings in Damascus on December 23rd and January 6th, has raised serious concerns that our embassy is not sufficiently protected from armed attack,” state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

“We, along with several other diplomatic missions, conveyed our security concerns to the government, but the regime failed to respond adequately.”

There was concern that al- Qaeda elements, blamed for the Damascus blasts, could have targeted the embassy.

Following the defeat of a United Nations Security Council resolution at the weekend, western countries pressing for President Bashar al-Assad to stand aside could back a “Friends of Syria” approach suggested by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

This would involve support for the SNC, a coalition fostered and formed in Turkey. Backing could include arms, financial assistance and diplomatic co-ordination but would fall short of direct military intervention.

US president Barack Obama said: “I think it is very important for us to try to resolve this without recourse to outside military intervention and I think that’s possible.”

However, SNC chairman Burhan Ghalioun has hinted that the West could provide aid to armed elements to protect Syrian civilians.

Anticipating such aid, a Higher Revolutionary Council has been formed to supersede the rebel Free Syrian Army as the chief armed force fighting the regime.

The council is to be led by Gen Mustafa Ahmed al-Sheikh, the highest-ranking officer to defect and seek refuge in Turkey, which could be expected to play a key role in training and arming deserters and providing logistical support in a power struggle that could become a prolonged civil conflict.

The West and its Arab allies were furious when Russia and China vetoed the resolution proposing Dr Assad’s demission and transition to multiparty democracy.

The vetoes were cast only hours after 217 civilians were reported killed in an assault on several districts of Homs.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, due in Damascus today, said the US reaction to Moscow’s veto was hysterical. Russia has invited both the government and opposition to send representatives to Moscow to negotiate an end to the violence and to launch talks on a transition. The government has agreed to attend, but the SNC refuses to talk to the regime.

Former Russian prime minister Yevgeny Primakov has accused Washington of trying to oust Dr Assad in order to get “rid of Arab regimes it dislikes”. The US has long attempted to persuade Syria to break its ties with Iran and cease its support for Israel’s antagonists, the Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hizbullah.

A spokesman for British prime minister David Cameron accused Russia and China of protecting the Assad regime.