In Syria, attacks on embassies don't happen without permission: former US official

Former State Department intelligence official Wayne White says that in police states like Syria, attacks such as those on the US and French embassies this week only happen when the government lets them happen.

By , Staff writer

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    Syrian government loyalists hold up pictures of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad while on their way to protest in front of the French embassy in Damascus on July 11. The UN Security Council on Tuesday condemned 'in the strongest terms' this week's attacks by demonstrators against the US and French embassies in Damascus.
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The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution Tuesday condemning the attacks this week on the US and French embassies in Damascus in "the strongest terms" and reminded Syria of its obligation to protect foreign embassies within its borders.

The UN resolution came hours after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put much of the blame for Monday's attack – in which protesters breached the embassy walls, scaled the roof, and broke windows – on the Syrian government, accusing it of providing inadequate protection for the embassy and implying that it may have permitted the attack to happen, or even encouraged it.

"By either allowing or inciting this kind of behavior by these mobs against American and French diplomats and their property, they are clearly trying to deflect attention from their crackdown internally and to move the world's view away from what they are doing," Secretary Clinton said Tuesday morning.

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The Syrian government condemned Ms. Clinton's comments and denied any role in the embassy attacks.

But in a tightly controlled state such as Syria, protests and violence like Monday's in Damascus do not happen without, at the very least, the government's compliance, says Wayne White, a retired senior State Department intelligence official and now a scholar the Middle East Institute in Washington.

"In a police state where [the government] controls the streets, when you have something boil up like that, that's directed," he says.

The crackdowns in the restive cities of Hama and Deraa and elsewhere in the country have taught Syrians that if they do something without government permission, they will be brutally quashed. That's particularly the case in Damascus, a city that remains firmly under regime control. Nor would Syrian police have stood by and done nothing while protesters launched their attacks on the embassies – unless they had been told to do just that, Mr. White says.

"Right in the center of Damascus and nothing happens to the people? Well, that right there tells you what is going on," White says. "Who went to Hama? The US and the French. Who was attacked? The US and the French…. This was retaliation for what it did not want the foreign missions to be doing: expressing sympathy with the battered demonstrators and reformists in the country."

Under normal circumstances, the last thing a country would want is an attack on a foreign embassy on its soil. It would be seen as proof that the government had lost control. In the 1990s, large protests in Bahrain overwhelmed Bahraini forces protecting the US embassy in Manama, but even then Bahraini forces fought to prevent protesters from getting through, says White.

The Syrian government has been accused of permitting an attack on the US embassy before. In 1998, protesters breached the walls of the ambassador's residence in a situation very similar to yesterday's.

White recalled that decades ago, a US diplomat posted to Damascus was at the foreign ministry shortly before a large Palestinian demonstration broke out in front of the American embassy. A Syrian ministry official, aware of the demonstration that would soon begin, warned the diplomat against returning home right away.

"That gives you an idea of the calculated nature of many attacks in highly controlled states," White says.

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