The US and French ambassadors stayed for two days in the city of Hama, the site of the largest demonstrations in Syria so far — some 500,000 protested on Friday — and was greeted with roses and olive branches thrown by protesters before leaving on Friday. Robert S. Ford and Éric Chevallier had arrived in Hama on Thursday; their visits had not been coordinated in advance, says the New York Times. Demonstrations on a smaller scale were also held in Damascus, Aleppo, Dayr az Zawr in the east and Homs, which is south of Hama.
At least 14 were killed on Friday, adding to a death toll that is already over 1,300.
The visit of Ford, “a seasoned diplomat and Arabic speaker who filled a post this year that had been vacant since 2005,” was both welcomed and critiqued, with activists asking why the US has not taken a harsher stance in calling for President Bashar al-Assad to step down. Others are concerned that the US envoy’s visit “might allow the government to taint the protests.” The New York Times describes Ford’s visit to Hama:
A video posted to YouTube captured a scene unusual for an American diplomat in the Arab world, where resentment at American support for authoritarian rulers runs deep. In Hama, crowds chanting “People want the fall of the regime” cheered what appeared to be Mr. Ford’s vehicle, and some protesters tossed flowers on its hood. In the background was a huge banner that said, “Syria is free, down with Bashar al-Assad.”
“Residents feel a kind of protection with the presence of the ambassador,” said Omar al-Habbal, an activist in Hama. “The authorities wouldn’t dare react with violence.”…
One banner in Homs, as described by an activist, summed up protesters’ frustrations with foreign powers: “To China, Russia and the United States: The people are staying, and the regime is falling.”
Below is a video of the US ambassador Ford in Hama:
Saying that Ford had met with “saboteurs and incited them to violence, protest and rejection of dialogue,” the Syrian foreign ministry condemned his visit to Hama and described it as “proof that Washington was inciting unrest across Syria.” According to Al Jazeera, Victoria Nuland, a state department spokesperson countered that the US embassy had informed Syria’s defense ministry about his trip beforehand, and that he had passed through security checkpoints on the way.
In 1982, Hama suffered a brutal crackdown in which 10,000 or more were killed under Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad.
In the US itself, Eric Boswell, an assistant secretary of state, summoned Syrian ambassador Imad Mustapha on Wednesday, after reports of Syrian ambassadors filming people at rallies supporting the anti-government protests in Syria. According to the BBC, the US said that it is also investigating concerns that the Syrian government may have “acted against” the families of protesters who are in Syria. The US State Department issued a statement at a White House press briefing on Friday:
“We received reports that Syrian mission personnel under Ambassador Mustapha’s authority have been conducting video and photographic surveillance of people participating in peaceful demonstrations in the United States.”
“The United States government takes very seriously reports of any foreign government actions attempting to intimidate individuals in the United States who are exercising their lawful right to freedom of speech as protected by the US Constitution.
“We are also investigating reports that the Syrian government has sought retribution against Syrian family members for the actions of their relatives in the United States exercising their lawful rights in this country and will respond accordingly.”
Loay Safi, chairman of the Syrian American Council, said that he had received reports of family members of those protesting in the US being “targeted” in Syria, says Al Jazeera:
“There are reports of intimidation and of retaliation. At this moment we are asking for investigation, but we are not quite certain,” he said….
“For instance, we had someone who is very active and calling for democracy in Syria and protesting in front of the embassy in Washington – his family member was killed back in Syria.”
The Guardian reports that, this coming Monday, a “national dialogue conference” is to begin. Assad has described this as “landmark moment in the uprising, paving the way for a change in electoral laws, away from one party rule and a broader voice for dissenters in the affairs of state.” But residents of Hama say that the so-called dialogue is simply a “fig leaf designed to create the impression of inclusiveness, but instead maintain a status quo of absolute power among the four-decade old regime” and that, so long as Assad is in power, “there can be no dialogue.”
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Photo of protesters in Washington DC by Mr T in DC