Protestors bused into Damascus by the Syrian government attacked the US and French embassies in what is seen as a shocking escalation by Syria in a growing diplomatic dispute over a visit to the city of Hama by the ambassadors from the two countries.
Some of the rioters manged to get into the US embassy itself, tearing down State Department plaques, smashing windows, and spraying obscene graffiti on the walls. Mobs also vandalized the residence of Ambassador Robert Ford a couple of blocks from the embassy compound. Ford was not at home when the attacks occurred.
French embassy guards fired live ammunition in the air to try and keep the rioters from overwhelming security. The Syrian police were nowhere to be seen at either embassy.
The violence comes at a time when President Assad has begun a “dialogue” with some opposition groups while simultaneously ordering tanks into the city of Homs to battle anti-government protestors. And the attack on our embassy, along with the continued rampage by Assad’s military against unarmed civilians, may have been the last straw for the United States. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement in which she announced that President Assad had “lost legitimacy” with the US government, because the Syrian president had “failed to deliver on the promises he’s made” to reform. She also said that Assad was “not indispensable” and the West has “nothing invested” in maintaining his position.
This is a far cry from the attitude shown toward Syria by the Obama administration in the first days of his presidency when the byword was “outreach” and the State Department considered Assad to be a partner in the peace process. All that is left now is to pick up the pieces of an empty, failed, and ultimately naive policy which has benefited Iran, and did nothing to moderate a brutal regime.
“This is a violent escalation by the regime. You do not bring bus loads of thugs into central Damascus from the coast without its consent,” said one western diplomat in Damascus. Indeed, the rioters were members of President Assad’s Alawite milita, the small Muslim sect that controls the Syrian government and economy. Both embassies complained to the Syrian foreign ministry that police were slow in reacting to the riots. A French Foreign Ministry spokesman said that Syrian authorities had done nothing to stop the attack: “(France) reminds (Syria) that it is not with such illegal methods that the authorities in Damascus will turn the attention away from the fundamental problem, which is to stop the repression of the Syrian population and to launch democratic reform.”
The US State Department went even further – chastising the Syrians for refusing to protect the embassy, while demanding compensation for the damage. “We strongly condemn the Syrian government’s refusal to protect our embassy, and demand compensation for damages.” The statement also alleged that a pro-Assad TV station encouraged the mobs to attack the embassies.
The diplomatic row began last week when Ambassador Ford paid a visit to the city of Hama, a stronghold of anti-government sentiment. French Ambassador Eric Chevalier followed up with a visit of his own on Friday. The purpose was to show solidarity with the Syrian people and affirm their right to protest. Both diplomats were greeted by cheering, flower-throwing crowds in Hama where, on Monday, Assad’s secret police were going door to door arresting suspected regime opponents.