US closes Syrian embassy as diplomacy collapses

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A member of the Free Syrian Army stands guard as anti-Syrian regime protesters hold a demonstration in Idlib, Syria, Monday, Feb. 6, 2012. The U.S. closed its Syrian embassy Monday and Britain recalled its ambassador to Damascus in a dramatic escalation of Western pressure on President Bashar Assad to give up power, just days after diplomatic efforts at the United Nations to end the crisis collapsed.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BEIRUT — The U.S. closed its embassy in Syria and Britain recalled its ambassador to Damascus on Monday in a new Western push to get President Bashar Assad to leave power and halt the murderous grind in Syria — now among the deadliest conflicts of the Arab Spring.

Although the diplomatic effort was stymied at the U.N. by vetoes from Russia and China, the moves by the U.S. and Britain were a clear message that Western powers see no point in engaging with Assad and now will seek to bolster Syria’s opposition.

The most serious violence Monday was reported in Homs, where Syrian government forces, using tanks and machine guns, shelled a makeshift medical clinic and residential areas on the third day of a relentless assault, killing a reported 40 people, activists said. More than a dozen others were reported killed elsewhere.

Those deaths followed a regime onslaught in Homs that began Saturday, the same day Syria’s allies in Russia and China vetoed a Western- and Arab-backed resolution aimed at trying to end the crackdown on dissent. Some 200 people died, the highest death toll reported for a single day in the uprising, according to several activist groups.

Even as the U.S. steps up pressure on Assad to halt the violence and relinquish power, Obama said a negotiated solution was possible, without recourse to outside military intervention.

Later, however, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration was taking “no options off the table.”

There are fears that international intervention, akin to the NATO airstrikes in Libya, could make the already combustible conflict in Syria even worse.

Syria is a highly unpredictable country, in part because of its web of allegiances to powerful forces, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and close ally Iran.

The country also has multiple sectarian divisions, which the uprising has laid bare. Most of Syria’s 22 million people are Sunni Muslim, but Assad and the ruling elite belong to the minority Alawite sect — something that has bred seething resentments.

The violence has reinforced opposition fears that Assad will unleash even greater firepower to crush dissent now that protection from China and Russia against any U.N.-sanctioned action appears assured.

After the U.N. veto, the commander of the rebel Free Syrian Army, Col. Riad al-Asaad, said “there is no other road” except military action to topple Assad.