The State Department has brought U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford back to Washington for an indeterminate period of time either because he was under threat of attack or for consultations, or both, depending on which State Department spokesman you listen to.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner sent out an e-mail early Monday morning announcing Ford had left Damascus on Oct. 22 due to threats of violence against him.
"Ambassador Robert Ford was brought back to Washington as a result of credible threats against his personal safety in Syria," Toner said. "At this point, we can't say when he will return to Syria. It will depend on our assessment of Syrian regime-led incitement and the security situation on the ground... This decision was based solely on the need to ensure his safety, a matter we take extremely seriously."
Ford has been assaulted at least twice while venturing out to engage the opposition in Syria over the recent months, and Syrian state media has been waging a media campaign against him. Toner's statement seemed to indicate a new, specific threat, but no details were provided and requests for more information were not answered.
By Monday afternoon, when lead spokesperson Victoria Nuland took the podium at today's press briefing, the reasons given for Ford's return to Washington had changed. Nuland said that Ford was called back for "consultations," and to give him a rest from the stressful situation in Syria.
"Let me correct a misimpression in the media. Ambassador Ford has been asked to come home for consultations. He has not been withdrawn; he has not been recalled. He's been asked to come home for consultations," Nuland said.
"First of all, we want a chance to consult with him, talk to him about how he sees the situation in Damascus. It's also the case that, you know, the situation there is quite tense, and we want to give him a little bit of a break."
Nuland also said the State Department is "concerned about a campaign of regime-led incitement targeted personally at Ambassador Ford by the state-run media of the government of Syria, and we're concerned about the security situation that that has created."
But she would not acknowledge that there any specific new threats against Ford's safety and refused to discuss what, if any, intelligence led to the decision to bring him home for an indeterminate period of time.
"I want to say that we do expect Ambassador Ford will be returning to Damascus after his consultations are completed," Nuland said, declining to say what criteria would be used to determined when Ford could return to Damascus.
The reporters at the briefing noted that Nuland's remarks seemed to be walking back Toner's Monday morning statement, which only mentioned the "credible threats" against Ford.
Nuland, however, stuck to her guns. "Are we finished with Syria? Have we exhausted Syria? I'm exhausted; I don't know about you guys," she said at one point in the questioning on the topic.
Nuland also rejected the comments of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who said in Jordan that the United States may consider military options inside Syria.
"The vast majority of the Syrian opposition continues to speak in favor of peaceful, nonviolent protests and against foreign intervention of any kind, and particularly foreign military intervention, into the situation in Syria, and we respect that," she said.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.