Jordan, Syria bar envoys in tit-for-tat diplomatic row

AMMAN Mon May 26, 2014 11:46am EDT

Bahjat Suleiman, Syrian ambassador to Jordan, gestures during a news conference at the Syrian embassy in Amman May 22, 2013. REUTERS/Ali Jarekji

Bahjat Suleiman, Syrian ambassador to Jordan, gestures during a news conference at the Syrian embassy in Amman May 22, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Ali Jarekji

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AMMAN (Reuters) - U.S. ally Jordan said on Monday it was expelling Syria's ambassador for accusing the kingdom of backing Syrian rebels, prompting Damascus to retaliate by barring Jordan's top diplomat.

A Jordanian foreign ministry statement gave Syrian Ambassador Bahjat Suleiman, a former general and intelligence chief, 24 hours to leave. It said he had violated diplomatic protocol by posting repeated comments on social media that criticized Jordan and its Gulf allies.

"Mr Suleiman used the territory of the kingdom as a platform to level unfounded accusations in more than one statement and post...this was despite repeated warnings for a long while," the statement on state news agency Petra said.

In a tit-for-tat move, neighboring Syria declared Jordan's charge d'affaires in Damascus persona non grata in response for what it said was an unjustified move to expel its ambassador, Syrian state television said.

Jordanian officials said the charge d'affaires was not currently in Syria.

Jordan has avoided publicly supporting Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow Assad, calling instead for a political solution to a war that has cost over 100,000 lives.

The Western-backed kingdom has harbored more than one million refugees from neighboring Syria's civil war.

Suleiman has accused Jordan in his posts of hosting Islamist radicals sent to fight President Bashar al-Assad's forces and of providing a haven for hundreds of Syrian army defectors training them with Saudi help to go back and join rebels.

"These insults against Jordan and its Arab allies are a flagrant breach of diplomatic norms and treaties," foreign ministry spokeswoman Sabah al Rafia told state media.

Suleiman allowed his followers on Facebook to leave comments strongly critical of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states which back the Syrian opposition, mocking their ruling families and ridiculing Jordanian officials who attacked Assad.

ELECTION

Some diplomats and officials privately say the timing of Suleiman's expulsion was tied to the embassy's announcement it will stage voting for Syrians living in Jordan in a presidential election on June 3 that looks all but certain to give President Bashar al-Assad a third seven-year term.

Earlier this month, Foreign Minister Nasser Joudeh warned that allowing the Syrian embassy to organize voting by a deeply divided Syrian community could bring security problems in the country.

Despite the carnage and the loss of swathes of territory in the north and east to insurgents, Syrian authorities say holding the elections would be a major milestone towards ending the conflict and fight against "Islamist terror".

Opponents have dismissed the vote as a farce.

Joudeh had threatened the envoy last June with expulsion after Facebook posts that said Syria would target the kingdom when the U.S. deployed two Patriot missile batteries.

Jordan has long denied hosting U.S.-led training of Syrian rebels or supplying military aid to Assad's opponents and security forces have stepped up in recent months the arrest of radicals seeking to cross the border to fight alongside Islamist groups fighting Assad's forces.

Jordan's Western-aligned monarchy is torn by conflicting interests over Syria. It has tried to steer a middle course between that of Gulf Arab allies who want Assad ousted at almost any cost and its own concerns - echoed by Washington - that a radical Islamist victory in Syria would install a worse threat.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Alister Doyle)

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