The State Department issued a new Travel Warning dated April 3 urging U.S. citizens to defer non-essential travel to Syria at this time. It also announced the authorized voluntary departure of all eligible family members of U.S. government employees from the country:
The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the potential for ongoing political and civil unrest in Syria. We urge U.S. citizens to defer non-essential travel to Syria at this time. The Department of State has authorized the voluntary departure of all eligible family members of U.S. government employees. U.S. citizens in Syria should closely examine their security situation in light of this and other recent developments and consider departing Syria. This Travel Warning supersedes the Travel Warning for Syria issued on April 1, 2011, to inform U.S. citizens of the authorization of voluntary departure for eligible family members of U.S. government employees.
U.S. citizens currently in Syria are advised against all travel to the coastal city of Lattakia as well as the southern city of Dera’a and the surrounding towns and villages. Demonstrations in those areas have been violently suppressed by Syrian security forces and there are reports of curtailed telecommunications, ongoing disturbances and live gunfire in various neighborhoods in the region.
Demonstrations in other major population centers, including Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Hama, have degenerated on several occasions into violent clashes between security forces and protesters, resulting in deaths, injuries, and property damage. We remind U.S. citizens that even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and escalate into violence.
U.S. citizens are urged to avoid the areas of demonstrations if possible, and to exercise caution if within the vicinity of any demonstrations. Demonstrations have regularly taken place on Fridays following afternoon or evening prayers. Areas where people congregate after Friday prayers should be avoided.
Syrian government constraints on observers have made it difficult to adequately assess current risks or the potential for continuing violence.
Syrian efforts to attribute the current civil unrest to external influences may lead to an increase in anti-foreigner sentiment. Detained U.S. citizens may find themselves subject to allegations of incitement or espionage. Contrary to the terms of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, of which Syria is a signatory, Syrian authorities generally do not notify the U.S. Embassy of the arrest of a U.S. citizen until days or weeks after the arrest. Moreover, in the past, security officials have not responded to Embassy requests for consular access, especially in the case of persons detained for “security” reasons.
Read the whole thing here.
The March 2010 OIG report on the US Embassy in Damascus indicates that post has a staff of approximately 260 which includes 49 direct-hire American employees, 6 EFMs and 205 LE staff.
The report put the resident American population in Syria, at about 9,000 which it said is "small but assisting these citizens can be labor- and time-intensive." The report note that "Although Syria is a signatory to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, the Embassy learns of arrests only when friends or family members call, not from the government. Moreover, upon learning of these arrests, the consular section must submit multiple requests before gaining consular access to prisoners."
Also this: "Embassy Damascus is a two-year assignment, with two rest and recuperation trips. American staff members currently receive a 20 percent post differential, and at the time of this inspection the Embassy had just submitted its required hardship differential questionnaire summary report. There is no danger pay, although many embassy personnel feel that security conditions and prior incidents of terrorism warrant this allowance. In 2009, embassy management made a strong but unsuccessful case for danger pay, including a presentation before representatives of the Office of Allowances."
As of March 27, 2011, the US Embassy in Damascus receives a 20% "hardship differential" while all other places in Syria are at 25% hardship. No danger pay allowance is paid for embassy personnel serving in Syria.
I don't know how many dependents are actually in Damascus that could be affected by this voluntary evac order. The OIG report from last year did mention that the Syrian Government caused the closure of the international school there, which resulted in the curtailment of embassy officials with school-age children at that time. As that school has not reopened, I am speculating that post only has adult EFMs and no school-age dependents (unless kids are homeschooled).