The United States closed its embassy in Syria and pulled out all its staff on Monday amid growing security concerns as President Bashar al-Assad's government intensifies its bloody crackdown.
Britain also recalled its envoy, but U.S. President Barack Obama stressed the importance of diplomacy and said it was a very different situation from Libya, where Western military intervention helped oust Moammar Gadhafi.
"The United States has suspended operations of our embassy in Damascus as of February 6. Ambassador (Robert) Ford and all American personnel have now departed the country," a State Department statement said.
"The recent surge in violence, including bombings in Damascus on December 23 and January 6, has raised serious concerns that our embassy is not sufficiently protected from armed attack," it said, referring to attacks linked to al-Qaida.
"We, along with several other diplomatic missions, conveyed our security concerns to the Syrian government but the regime failed to respond adequately."
Obama said a negotiated solution with Syria was still possible and defended his administration's handling of crisis, saying the U.S. had been "relentless" in demanding that Assad leave power.
"It is important to resolve this without recourse to outside military intervention and I think that's possible," he said in an NBC interview broadcast Monday.
"My sense is you are seeing more and more people inside of Syria recognizing that they need to turn a chapter and the Assad regime is feeling the noose tightening around them. This is not a matter of if but when."
Western powers have vowed to seek new ways to punish Assad's government amid growing outrage over vetos by Russia and China of a U.N. resolution condemning Syria for a deadly crackdown that has claimed the lives of more than 6,000 people since March, according to rights groups.
"Russia and China will, I think, come to regret this decision which has aligned them with a dying dictator, whose days are numbered, and put them at odds with the Syrian people and the entire region," Washington's U.N. ambassador Susan Rice said on Monday.
She added that the vote on Saturday, which came just hours after Syrian forces bombed the city of Homs, killing hundreds of civilians, "put a stake in the heart of efforts to resolve this conflict peacefully."
The resolution on the table "would have given political backing to an Arab League plan to begin a negotiated transition," Rice told CNN.
At least another 47 people were killed across Syria on Monday as government troops attacked the flashpoint city of Homs and opened fire in Damascus, Aleppo and Zabadani, activists said.
"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," the State Department said.
"It also underscores the urgent need for the international community to act without delay to support the Arab League's transition plan before the regime's escalating violence puts a political solution out of reach and further jeopardizes regional peace and security."
Senior State Department officials told CNN that two embassy employees left by air last week and 15 others, including Ford, departed overland via Jordan on Monday morning.
"The government is getting stretched beyond its ability to control the various elements of violence in the country," one senior official was quoted as saying.
The State Department stressed that Ford remains the ambassador and "will maintain contacts with the Syrian opposition and continue our efforts to support the peaceful political transition which the Syrian people have so bravely sought."
White House spokesman Jay Carney followed up on Monday by warning Syria's allies that backing Assad was a "losing bet" because the Syrian leader's hold on power was "very limited at best."
"Betting everything on Assad is a recipe for failure," Carney said.
"We continue to work with the international community to do everything we can to enhance the pressure on him," he added.
Despite being disappointed in its efforts to condemn Assad at the U.N., Carney said Washington wanted to "make it clear to everyone that they should not want to place a bet on the Assad regime because that is a losing bet."
"It is a losing bet in real Realpolitik terms, but it's also a losing bet, obviously, in terms of being on the right side of the people of Syria."
Carney played up signs that Assad's forces had lost control of several parts of Syria, and said he was running out of money and seeing his political prospects quickly weaken.
He also said that Washington still believed a "political" solution was possible to end the political crisis in Syria.
"There's no question that (Assad) is operating with gross disregard for the health and safety and welfare of his own people. He is killing his own people."
Poland said later on Monday it would represent U.S. interests in Syria.
"The U.S. Department of State -- taking into account the special nature of Polish-American relations and Poland’s position in the Middle East -- requested that the authorities of the Republic of Poland represent U.S. interests in Syria," the Polish foreign ministry said in a statement.
"In keeping with the principle of international solidarity and the long tradition of Polish-American friendship, Poland has agreed to the request," it added.
It is standard practice for a country that pulls out its diplomats from a country for security reasons -- or because of spats with the host nation -- to ask an ally to represent its interests there.
Poland also represented Washington's interests in Iraq between the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 U.S.-led ousting of Saddam Hussein.
For its part, the Pentagon said Monday the latest defections of senior officers from Syria's military were "noteworthy."
"It is noteworthy that we're seeing some high level defections, senior Syrian military officials defecting into the opposition," Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters.
He did not offer further comment on the U.S. government's assessment of Syria's military.
After the Russian and Chinese vetos, Washington wanted to see the Assad regime come under "intense" pressure, Little said.
"The focus remains on applying intense diplomatic and economic pressure on the Assad regime and we believe that there is a strong chance that that pressure can yield results on behalf of the Syrian people and those who are oppressed in Syria," he said.
On Monday, General Mustafa Ahmed al-Sheikh, the most senior commander to have defected from Syria's army, announced the creation of a higher military council that would "liberate" the country from Assad's rule.
Another organization, the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), says it has 40,000 dissident soldiers and sympathizers and has carried out operations against the regime's forces.
Also on Monday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain has recalled its ambassador to Syria for consultations.
In a statement to parliament, Hague said he had summoned the Syrian envoy to London to the Foreign Office in protest at the situation in Syria.
"I have today recalled to London our ambassador in Damascus for consultations," Hague told lawmakers.
"This is a doomed regime as well as a murdering regime. There is no way it can recover its credibility internationally or with its own people."
Britain would now push for fresh European Union sanctions against Syria and consider a U.N. General Assembly resolution calling for steps to end the violence, Hague said.
But Hague indicated that despite its "deteriorating relations with the Syrian government" Britain would not cut its ties completely.
"We will use our remaining channels to the Syrian regime to make clear our abhorrence at the violence that is utterly unacceptable to the civilized world," Hague said.
He also called for Syrian authorities to protect the British embassy in Damascus and pledged that Britain was "committed" to protecting the Syrian embassy.
Several protesters broke into the Syrian embassy in London at the weekend.
Hague said Britain would now step up its contacts with the Syrian opposition.
London would also be a "highly active" member in setting up an Arab-led "Friends of Syria" to show international support for the Syrian people, and support Arab League efforts to end the crisis, he said.
Hague said he had spoken to his Jordanian counterpart and the Secretary General of the Arab League earlier Monday.
The British foreign secretary had harsh words for Russia and China, saying their Security Council veto on Saturday had "increased the likelihood of what they wish to avoid in Syria -- civil war."
"However this government, this House, our country and our allies will not forget the people of Syria. We will redouble our efforts to put pressure on this appalling regime and to stop this indefensible violence," he said.
Hague said at least 6,000 people had been killed in Syria since last year, adding that Syrian forces were accused of atrocities including the rape of children.
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