The United States has pulled its ambassador out of Syria over security concerns after his cultivation of contacts with protesters led to attacks on his embassy and residence by backers of President Bashar al-Assad, diplomats said on Monday.
Robert Ford left Syria over the weekend, the Western diplomats 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 on Saturday," said one of the diplomats, who like others asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue.
U.S. embassy officials were not immediately available for comment.
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.
Ford 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 the southern province of Deraa, ignoring a new ban on Western diplomats travelling 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 ambassador in 2005.
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.
In an interview with Reuters last month, Ford said Assad was losing support among key constituents and risked plunging Syria into sectarian strife by intensifying a military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.
Time was running against Assad, he said at the time.
© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.