US closes Syrian embassy in Washington

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration ordered the Syrian government on Tuesday to suspend its diplomatic and consular missions in the United States, requiring all personnel who are not legal U.S residents to leave the country.

The order, three years after the start of Syria's bloody civil war, essentially shutters the Syrian embassy in Washington and its honorary consulates in Troy, Mich., and Houston, Texas. It comes in response to a decision by President Bashar Assad's government to suspend consular services for Syrians living in the U.S.

"We have determined it is unacceptable for individuals appointed by that regime to conduct diplomatic or consular operations in the United States," U.S. special envoy to Syria Daniel Rubenstein said in a statement.

However, Rubenstein said the U.S. wants to continue diplomatic relations with Damascus, "as an expression of our longstanding ties with the Syrian people, an interest that will endure long after Bashar Assad leaves power."

"The United States will continue to assist those seeking change in Syria, to help end the slaughter, and to resolve the crisis through negotiations — for the benefit of the Syrian people," Rubenstein said.

More than 140,000 people have been killed in the war that began in March 2011 as an uprising against Assad's government. It since has largely divided along sectarian lines, with a chaotic mix of mostly Sunni rebels pitted against Syria's minorities, including Christians, Shiites and Alawites, who largely have sided with the government or remained neutral. Assad himself is part of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Tuesday's order should not affect Syria's mission at the United Nations, although the State Department earlier this month already imposed restrictions limiting its ambassador to New York.

Syrian-Americans had complained that Ambassador Bashar Jafari was seeking to divide their community by traveling around the United States on a propaganda tour in support of Assad's government.

The State Department restrictions ban Jafari from traveling outside the five boroughs of New York City.

Diplomats from several countries, including some of those listed as state sponsors of terrorism, are required to get approval before traveling outside a 25-mile (40-kilometer) radius of Manhattan.