RABAT Morocco ordered the Syrian ambassador on Monday to leave the North African kingdom and called for a transition to democracy in Syria, and Damascus retaliated by declaring the Moroccan ambassador there persona non grata.
Rabat's move followed the defection last week of Syria's ambassador to Iraq and the flight the week before of a prominent general once close to Assad - developments that Western officials said showed that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was losing his grip on power as the rebellion against him drags on.
Earlier on Monday rumors circulated that the ambassador to Rabat, Nabih Ismail, had also defected to the rebel side. A Syrian embassy official denied this but had no further comment.
Morocco's Foreign Ministry did not immediately explain the timing or the reason for its decision to expel Ismail, but said in a statement the situation in Syria "cannot remain as it is".
It added that Morocco wished for "an efficient and resolute action to ensure a political transition towards a democratic setup that guarantees Syria's unity, stability and regional safety to achieve the brotherly Syrian people's aspirations for dignity, freedom and development."
Ambassador Ismail and his deputy Anwar Mohamed were not immediately available for comment, but the Syrian government struck back quickly by declaring Morocco's ambassador Mohamed Ikhssasi persona non grata as well.
Morocco had already recalled Ikhssasi in November 2011, and Monday's decision to kick out Ismail was the latest in a series of diplomatic expulsions that have increased Assad's international isolation as Syrian rebels gain strength.
Ali Anouzla, editor of independent online newspaper Lakome.com, said Rabat may have sought to avoid diplomatic embarrassment by ejecting the Syrian envoy ahead of the next meeting of Friends of Syria - Assad's opponents in the West, the Arab world plus Turkey - that it is scheduled to host soon.
"It (expulsion) feels very belated," he said.
In May, the United States, France, Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy, Spain, Australia, Bulgaria and Switzerland all turfed out Syrian diplomats in response to a massacre of 108 people in the town of Houla in May. Japan followed suit.
Morocco's North African neighbors Tunisia and Libya, which saw their own dictators swept away in last year's Arab Spring uprisings, expelled Syrian diplomats as far back as February.
Morocco itself was rocked by pro-democracy demonstrations, inspired by Arab Spring uprisings, last year to demand a constitutional monarchy, less corruption and poverty.
Unlike in Syria, where initial unrest was met with a military crackdown, the Moroccan protests abated after King Mohammed floated a charter of democratic reforms and let moderate Islamists take over the government for the first time.
(Writing by Lin Noueihed, editing by Mark Heinrich)