Did a UN report on atrocities in Syria prompt the Obama administration to order Syria to close its embassy and consulates and their personnel to leave the US? Or is this a warning signal to the Syrian regime’s chief protector, Vladimir Putin? The timing is curious, to say the least, and the State Department explained that a decision by the Bashar al-Assad regime to suspend consular services in the US:

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.

On the other hand, State also declared that it wants to keep diplomatic relations in place with Syria:

This week marks the three-year anniversary of the Syrian revolution. For three years, Bashar al-Assad has refused to heed the call of the Syrian people to step aside. He has directed a war against his own people and created a humanitarian catastrophe in order to hold on to power and protect his narrow interests.

Following the announcement that the Syrian Embassy has suspended its provision of consular services, and in consideration of the atrocities the Assad regime has committed against the Syrian people, we have determined it is unacceptable for individuals appointed by that regime to conduct diplomatic or consular operations in the United States.

Consequently, the United States notified the Syrian government today that it must immediately suspend operations of its Embassy in Washington, D.C. and its honorary consulates in Troy, Michigan, and Houston, Texas. Syrian diplomats at the embassy and Syrian honorary consulates are no longer permitted to perform diplomatic or consular functions and those who are not U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents must depart the United States.

Despite the differences between our governments, the United States continues to maintain diplomatic relations with the state of Syria as an expression of our longstanding ties with the Syrian people, an interest that will endure long after Bashar al-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.

It took three years to reach this conclusion? Some might find it a surprise that we still have diplomatic relations at all with Assad, but that’s been a relic of the initial conclusion by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama that Assad was a “reformer.” Even after demanding Assad’s resignation, freezing his assets, and threatening to bomb Assad’s forces for crossing the “red line” of chemical-weapons use, the US and Syria have maintained diplomatic relations. Suddenly closing off consular services seems like small potatoes in comparison.

It’s possible that this report from UN human-rights investigators could have prompted this, but it’s just as condemnatory on Assad’s enemies as the Assad regime:

Jihadist rebels have carried out mass executions of detainees in Syria, UN human rights investigators say.

The commission of inquiry’s latest report documents several incidents blamed on the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).

Government forces are meanwhile accused of sharply increasing their use of indiscriminate weapons, such as barrel-bombs, against civilians. …

In addition, the UN investigators found that after 20 January the government ramped up its campaign of dropping barrel-bombs – explosive-filled cylinders or oil barrels – onto densely-populated residential districts of Aleppo, with devastating consequences.

The unceasing bombardment – at the same time as representatives of the government were attending peace talks with the opposition in Geneva – caused extensive civilian casualties and led to the large-scale displacement of people from targeted areas, the report says.

It’s awful, and the Syrian civil was has been especially horrific on Christians caught in the crossfire. That’s nothing new, either. We’ve known about atrocities since the beginning of the conflict, and in fact it has been one of the pretexts for intervention cited by Obama himself with his red lines and members of both parties in Congress. Until now, we haven’t demanded the expulsion of Syrian diplomats over it.

This seems like a broader message, and one for an audience not limited to Bashar al-Assad. The US may well be sending a not-so-subtle signal of intervention in Syria as a counter-threat to more action by Putin in Ukraine. It certainly seems to indicate the end of the Russo-American partnership on bringing that conflict to an end.