WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration closed the US Embassy in Damascus on Monday and pulled all American diplomats out of violence-wracked Syria as the US stepped up pressure on President Bashar Assad to leave power.

Robert Ford, the American ambassador, and 17 other American officials left Syria and were expected to travel back to the United States. Ford informed Syrian authorities of the decision to leave earlier in the day, State Department officials said. Two diplomats left by air and the others went overland to Jordan.

The US embassy in Damascus (photo credit: Bassem Tellawi / AP)

Their departure comes two weeks after the State Department warned that it would close the embassy unless Assad’s government better protected the mission, citing safety concerns about embassy personnel and a recent series of car bombs. And it coincides with a U.S. effort to build an international coalition in support of Syria’s opposition.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement that Ford remains the U.S. ambassador “to Syria and its people,” and said he would continue his work on Syria, maintaining contacts with the Syrian opposition and supporting “the peaceful political transition which the Syrian people have so bravely sought.”

The Polish embassy will provide emergency consular services for Americans remaining in Syria, the State Department said.

The U.N. estimates that well over 5,400 people have been killed since March, when mostly peaceful protesters rose up to voice their anger toward four decades of dictatorship by the Assad family. A brutal crackdown ensued, prompting armed rebels to take the fight to regime troops and try to establish control in pro-opposition areas. The government has responded with even more violence, raising fears of an all-out civil war.

Syrian rebels secure a demonstration in Idlib Saturday (photo credit: AP)

Syrian rebels secure a demonstration in Idlib Saturday (photo credit: AP)

Despite the increased bloodshed, world powers are bitterly divided over how to deal with the situation. The U.S., its European partners and much of the Arab world want Assad to step down and transfer power to his vice president as part of a transition to democracy. But Russia and China, wary after watching the West help Libyan militia oust Moammar Gadhafi, reject any talk of military intervention or regime change. They vetoed a U.N. resolution over the weekend that would have endorsed an Arab League plan for Syria’s post-Assad future.

President Barack Obama said the conflict in Syria should be resolved without outside military intervention, saying a negotiated solution in Syria is still possible. And he defended his administration’s actions during the 11-month uprising against Assad’s regime.

“We have been relentless in sending a message that it is time for Assad to go,” Obama said during an interview with NBC. “This is not going to be a matter of if, it’s going to be a matter of when.”

 

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.