WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States closed its embassy in Damascus on Monday and President Barack Obama vowed to ratchet up pressure on Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to step down, even as world powers remained divided over how to end the crisis.
Washington said it was pulling all of its remaining diplomats out of Syria just two days after Western countries failed to secure a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have backed an Arab League call for Assad to leave power.
The U.S. decision, which was foreshadowed by the State Department last month, came as Washington and its allies scrambled to find a new strategy to rally the international community to force Assad to end his bloody, 11-month-old crackdown on the opposition.
“The Assad regime is feeling the noose tightening around them,” Obama told NBC News’ “Today” show in an interview broadcast on Monday. “We’re going to just continue to put more and more pressure until hopefully we see a transition.”
While threatening Damascus with further sanctions and diplomatic isolation, Obama made clear that the United States had no appetite for military intervention like the NATO bombing campaign that helped toppled Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi last year.
“Not every situation is going to allow for the kind of military solution that we saw (in Libya),” Obama said. “It is very important for us to try to resolve this without recourse to outside military intervention. And I think that’s possible.”
But Washington’s diplomatic options are limited after Russia and China cast a double veto in the Security Council on Saturday, effectively blocking U.N. action.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed on Sunday that Washington would work with “friends of a Democratic Syria around the world,” raising the prospects of forging a coalition of like-minded countries to help Assad’s political opposition.
But Clinton did not give further details which nations might band together or precisely what they might do.
The State Department, which had warned it would close the embassy unless security concerns were addressed, said it had suspended embassy operations and withdrawn Ambassador Robert Ford due to the worsening security situation.
But the move stopped short of a formal break in diplomatic ties between Washington and Damascus.
“We, along with several other diplomatic missions, conveyed our security concerns to the Syrian government but the regime failed to respond adequately,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
Nuland said that Ford would retain his position as the U.S. ambassador to Syria and would work together with his team from Washington.
“Together with other senior U.S. officials, Ambassador Ford will maintain contacts with the Syrian opposition and continue our efforts to support the peaceful political transition which the Syrian people have so bravely sought,” Nuland said.
The Syrian embassy in Washington did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Britain also said on Monday it was recalling its ambassador to Syria for consultations as a diplomatic protest against Assad’s crackdown on protesters.
Syrian forces bombarded Homs on Monday, killing at least 50 people in a sustained assault on several districts of the city which has become a centre of armed opposition to Assad, the Syrian National Council opposition group said.
Reporting By Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Sandra Maler