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US shutters embassy in Syria, withdraws all personnel

Ongoing violence and a worsening security situation has been further complicated by Russia and China's decision to block a U.N Security Council resolution on Syria. NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports.

Updated at 1:45 p.m. ET: The best solution to ending the bloodshed in Syria is political and while the United States takes no option off the table, it is focused on pursuing diplomatic and economic measures to achieve that goal, the White House said on Monday after it was announced the U.S. Embassy in Syria was closing.

"We believe the right solution in Syria is a political solution," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters at a regular news briefing.

Updated at 11:50 a.m. ET: Britain has recalled its ambassador to Syria to discuss the ongoing violence in that country, Foreign Secretary William Hague told lawmakers on Monday.


The move followed the United States' announcement that it was withdrawing all embassy personnel and their family members from Syria, and comes amid escalating international pressure on the Bashar Assad regime, which is in the midst of a worsening crackdown on protesters.

Hague also said:

"The Syrian regime has deployed snipers, tanks, artillery and mortars against civilian protestors and population centers, particularly in the cities of Homs, Idlib, Hama and Deraa. 

Thousands of Syrians have endured imprisonment, torture and sexual violence - including instances of the alleged rape of children - and the humanitarian position is deteriorating.

This is an utterly unacceptable situation which demands a united international response." 

Updated at 9:35 a.m. ET: "All official U.S. embassy personnel and their family members have departed" Syria, the U.S. State Department says in a statement released on Monday.

U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice talks about the shared frustrations of the Syrians and U.S. about Russia's veto of a U.N. resolution to pressure the Assad regime.

The U.S. has told the Syrian government that it "suspended all embassy operations" and had withdrawn Ambassador Robert Ford because of the ongoing violence and worsening security situation.

Hillary Clinton lambastes 'travesty' of UN veto on Syria

The State Department warned late last month that it would close the embassy unless security concerns were addressed.

"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.

"We continue to be gravely concerned by the escalation of violence in Syria caused by the regime's blatant defiance of its commitments to the action plan it agreed to with the Arab League," the statement added.  "The deteriorating security situation that led to the suspension of our diplomatic operations makes clear once more the dangerous path Assad has chosen and the regime's inability to fully control Syria."

Reuters

Anti-government protesters burn tires during a demonstration against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime in the town of Daraa, near Damascus, on Monday.

Updated at 9:15 a.m. ET: The Associated Press is reporting that the United States is closing its embassy in Damascus and pulling American diplomats out of Syria as Bashar Assad's government escalates its 10-month crackdown on protesters.

Activists have said they fear that the Saturday decision by Russia and China to block a U.N Security Council resolution on Syria will embolden Assad's regime. Some worry that Syria's turmoil will move into even a more dangerous new phase that could degenerate into outright civil war.

Updated at 5:11 a.m. ET: Syrian troops shelled neighborhoods in the restive city of Homs on Monday, a day after President Bashar Assad's government vowed to continue its deadly crackdown on the country's uprising, activists said.

The bombardment comes two days after another attack on the central Syrian city that activists say killed 200 people, the highest death toll reported for a single day in the 11-month uprising.

The Local Coordination Committees activist group said Monday's bombardment hit a makeshift hospital in the tense neighborhood of Baba Amr, causing casualties.

The Syrian National Council opposition group said a total of 50 people were killed Monday in the sustained assault on several districts of the city.

AP

Syrian rebels gather in an alley as they try to protect a nearby demonstration in Idlib on Sunday. The graffiti on the wall above them reads: "behave, stranger."

"The regime is acting as if it were immune to international intervention and has a free hand to use violence against the people," the group's Catherine al-Talli told Reuters

Activists say they fear that the Saturday decision by Russia and China to block a U.N Security Council resolution on Syria will embolden Assad's regime. Some fear that Syria's turmoil will move into even a more dangerous new phase that could degenerate into outright civil war.

Philippe Bolopion, U.N. director at Human Rights Watch, described the veto as "a betrayal of the Syrian people." 

Tim Marshall, foreign affairs editor of Britain's Sky News, said that it was now "almost impossible to see" how the situation could be solved diplomatically.

"This will be settled by violence," he said.

On Sunday, the commander of rebel soldiers said force was now the only way to oust Assad, while the regime vowed to press its military crackdown to bring back stability to the country.

"We did not sleep all night," Majd Amer, an activist in Homs, said by telephone. Explosions could be heard in the background. "The regime is committing organized crimes."

Amer said shelling of his neighborhood of Khaldiyeh started at 3 a.m., and most residents living on high floors either fled to shelters or to lower floors. He said electricity was also cut.

Homs has been an epicenter of Syria's uprising.

'Controlled demolition' for Assad?
Meanwhile, Reuters reported that Russia may be seeking a "controlled demolition" of Assad's rule to save its sole major foothold in the Arab world against Western rivals when its foreign minister and spy chief hold rare talks in Damascus this week.

Moscow announced the high-stakes mission hours on Saturday hours before Russia and China, in a move that outraged much of the world and Syria's opposition, vetoed the U.N. Security Council resolution.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he would travel to Syria on Tuesday along with Foreign Intelligence Service Director Mikhail Fradkov for talks with Assad.

Lavrov revealed nothing about their purpose, but a Foreign Ministry statement on Sunday indicated he and Fradkov would at least press Assad, who has ruled out resigning and rejected his opponents as "terrorists," to make compromises.

President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the mission, it said, because Russia "firmly intends to seek the swiftest stabilization of the situation in Syria on the basis of the swiftest implementation of democratic reforms whose time has come."

President Barack Obama calls for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down following a crackdown in Syria that lead to the deaths of over 200 people. NBC's Mike Viqueira reports.

After a veto that angered the West and deepened the resolve of Assad's foes, Russia faces a daunting task: how to leverage longstanding ties with an embattled Syrian leader into traction firm enough to keep Russia from losing its most solid arena of influence in the Middle East.

Billions of dollars in arms contracts
Moscow could be tempted to play for time by seeking to shore up Assad, whose government has billions of dollars worth of contracts for Russian arms and hosts a naval maintenance and supply facility on its Mediterranean coast that is Russia's only military base outside the former Soviet Union.

But many analysts say Moscow's veto was driven less by love for Assad or hope of a return to Syria's pre-conflict status quo than by Prime Minister Putin's desire to show -- as he seeks a six-year term in a March presidential vote -- that he will defy Western efforts to impose political change on sovereign states in regions of big power competition.

"Russia's overwhelming objective is to salvage something from the wreckage of the Assad regime and contain Western influence in its most important Arab ally," said Shashank Joshi, an associate fellow at Britain's Royal United Services Institute, a military think-tank.

With Assad facing growing pressure from the West, Arab states and his opponents at home, Moscow's best hope of maintaining influence may be "a controlled demolition, of sorts - a managed transition to a new regime, shorn of Bashar but built around the loyalists of the Assad dynasty," Joshi said.

There are problems with that approach, however.

'Influence'
By twice vetoing U.N. resolutions that would have condemned Assad, and resisting pleas from visiting Syrian opposition groups to join calls for his resignation, Moscow may have ruined any remaining chance it had of being accepted by the opposition. A superficial shakeup would do little to change that.

But Ghassan Ibrahim, a Syrian dissident who heads the London-based Global Arab Network, a web-based news and information service, said that if Russia could secure the exit of Assad and of senior military and security officers associated with torture, Syrians would judge Russia's role as acceptable.

"The Russians think Assad's days are over and they are thinking about how to safeguard their position in the region," said Ibrahim. "Syria is their only door into the region and it gives them influence. They need to protect it. But do they have enough power to manipulate Assad (to step down)?"

The Associated Press, Reuters and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.