U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert S. Ford, pictured last year, has been withdrawn… (Jewel Samad / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Washington and Beirut — Robert Ford returns to Washington for now amid safety concerns prompted by what U.S. officials call a campaign of "malicious and deceitful propaganda" in Syria's state-run news media.
The Obama administration has temporarily withdrawn its ambassador to Syria, citing threats against his personal safety following his outspoken criticism of the country's brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.
Ambassador Robert S. Ford returned to Washington because of what U.S. officials called a campaign of "malicious and deceitful propaganda" in Syria's state-run news media, which they feared could incite violence against the career diplomat.
President Bashar Assad's regime responded by recalling its ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, for consultations. A Syrian Embassy spokesman declined to comment on the American allegations.
The flap comes after months of growing friction between Washington and Damascus. In August, President Obama led other Western governments in calling for Assad to step down, a sign of frustration at the regime's repeated use of armed troops to put down the street protests that began in March.
Ford has traveled widely this year to meet Syrian opposition leaders and publicly offer them support. His high-profile visits, including attending the funeral of a Syrian activist, have heartened critics of Assad. But they have also stirred a violent reaction that U.S. officials say the Syrian government has encouraged.
Last month, dozens of pro-government Syrians attacked an embassy motorcade in Damascus and trapped Ford and other U.S. diplomats for about 90 minutes in an office building where he was meeting with an opposition figure.
Ford described the attack in a Facebook post:
"Protesters threw concrete blocks at the windows and hit the cars with iron bars. One person jumped on the hood of the car, tried to kick in the windshield and then jumped on the roof. Another person held the roof railing and tried to break the car's side window. When the embassy car moved through the crowd, the man fell off the car," he wrote.
"Americans understand that we are seeing the ugly side of the Syrian regime which uses brutal force, repression and intimidation to stay in power."
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday that the administration intends to send Ford back to Damascus once the threat has eased. The visit to Washington will "give him a little bit of a break" from a harrowing assignment, she said.
On Monday, anti-Assad activists in Syria said security forces had killed 15 people, including nine in Homs, the west-central city that has seen some of the most dramatic violence. Dozens have been reported killed in Homs in recent weeks.
Syria's official SANA news agency reported Monday that authorities had detected a telephone call between "two terrorists" planning to dispatch gunmen to open fire on "protesters and citizens in Homs."
Damascus has blamed the violence on "armed groups" acting under a foreign conspiracy emanating from Washington and allied capitals.
The Senate recently confirmed Ford as ambassador, 18 months after Obama nominated him. Republican lawmakers long vowed to block the appointment, arguing that sending a high-level diplomat to Damascus would reward a government that has supported terrorism and sought to undermine U.S. aims in the region.
But Ford's confrontational approach to Assad's crackdown won him supporters in both parties.
At least 3,000 Syrians, including 187 children, have been killed since the uprising began, according to United Nations estimates. Thousands more have been arrested. The Syrian government disputes those figures and says armed terrorist groups have killed hundreds of police and soldiers.
Richter reported from Washington and McDonnell from Beirut.