Ford, a career diplomat, returned to the United States over the weekend and will remain there indefinitely until “the situation improves on the ground,” said Haynes Mahoney, the charge d’affaires at the embassy in Damascus. Hours later, the Syrian Embassy in Washington announced that its ambassador, Imad Moustapha, had been summoned back to Damascus for “consultations,” in what was clearly a retaliatory measure.
Mahoney said that no specific incident had prompted Ford’s abrupt departure Saturday but that the tone of several recent items in the government-controlled Syrian media had convinced officials that he could be in danger. Ford’s exit was kept under wraps until he was back in the United States, and Syrian officials said they had heard only that he was taking a weekend break in Amman, the Jordanian capital.
“The threats were really based on stories we saw that were very inciting, and we were concerned for his safety,” Mahoney said.
Ford’s return came amid increasing attempts in the West to tighten pressure on the Assad government over its brutal repression of the seven-month-old uprising in Syria. On Sunday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) became the latest U.S. politician to call for a Libya-style international military campaign to protect Syrians against government attacks. “The Assad regime should not consider that it can get away with mass murder,” McCain said at the World Economic Forum in Jordan.
State Department officials in Washington declined to comment on specific intelligence that led them to pull Ford out of Syria. But Victoria Nuland, spokeswoman for the department, said the Assad government was trying to “deflect attention inside the country away from the legitimate grievances of the peaceful protesters” by agitating against Ford and other foreigners.
U.S. officials cited an article in the government-run al-Thawra newspaper that accused Ford of working to provoke a civil war in Syria and another that accused him of running death squads while he was serving as a political officer in Iraq.
The State Department stressed that Ford had not been formally recalled, a step that would signal a rupture in diplomatic relations, and that he had been summoned home for consultations, with the presumption that he would return as soon as it was considered safe. Mahoney said the embassy, which has been operating on a skeleton staff since most nonessential officers were withdrawn earlier in the year, will continue to function.