AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Jordan expelled Syria's top envoy Monday, prompting Damascus to do the same in a diplomatic tussle that could signal the start of unraveling ties between the neighbors.
The move came a week before an election in Syria expected to keep President Bashar Assad in power. The highly contentious vote, being held amid a ferocious civil war, has been called a mockery by Western countries.
It was unclear what specifically caused Jordan to expel Syrian Ambassador Bahjat Suleiman. Jordan has hosted an envoy from Syria since the start of the 2011 uprising despite quietly supporting rebels trying to overthrow Assad.
Suleiman was ordered to leave the country within 24 hours in a humiliating public announcement first made on state-run media.
He was declared persona non grata because of "continued offensive statements, through his personal contacts or writing in the media and the social media, against the kingdom," Jordanian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Sabah al-Rafie said in a statement carried by the state-run Petra news agency.
His statements were a "sheer departure from all diplomatic norms and conventions," she said.
Al-Rafie said Suleiman used Jordan as a platform to offend other Arab countries, likely referring to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both chief supporters of the Syrian rebels.
Syrian officials and diplomats regularly launch diatribes against the leaders of those countries and Turkey.
Soon after the announcement from Amman about Suleiman, Syria's Foreign Ministry said it would expel the Jordanian charge d'affaires in retaliation, although he was not in the country. It said it requested the Jordanian Embassy in Damascus to inform the diplomat that he is banned from entering Syria.
"Jordan's reprehensible and unjustifiable decision does not reflect the deep fraternal relations between the two peoples in Syria and Jordan," it said.
Jordanian Information Minister Mohammad al-Momani said the ambassador to Syria retired a month ago and a replacement had not been assigned.
The main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, welcomed Jordan's move, calling it an "important step" in supporting the Syrian people. In a statement, the coalition urged other Arab states to follow Jordan's lead to increase the Assad government's isolation.
Experts expressed surprise at the Jordanian announcement, saying it was not in keeping with diplomatic protocol.
"The dramatic way he was expelled was strange. It's as if Jordan is cutting off its diplomatic relations with Syria," said analyst Hisham Jaber, a retired brigadier general in the Lebanese military.