US blames Syrian government for embassy attack in Damascus

In a sharp rebuke of the Assad regime, Secretary of State Clinton called the embassy attack a failed attempt to deflect attention from the brutal crackdown on protesters.

By , Staff writer

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    The damaged front side of the US embassy is seen after pro-government protesters attacked the embassy compound in Damascus, Syria, Monday, July 11.
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The US lashed out at Syria after an assault on the US Embassy in Damascus Monday, heaping blame on President Bashar al-Assad's regime for instigating the protests and for standing by when they escalated into an attack.

Syrian troops did nothing to disperse the angry crowd around the US embassy, even as protesters began climbing a fence, scaling the roof of one of the embassy buildings, knocking out security cameras, and smashing windows, the Los Angeles Times reported. At the French embassy, which also came under attack, security guards fired warning shots in the air after Syrian soldiers there also failed to step in – not even when protesters began using a battering ram to try to break in.

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The protesters were responding to a visit Friday by US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford and French Ambassador Eric Chevallier to Hama, one of several Syrian cities where antigovernment protests have been violently quashed by the regime. Their visit brought attention to the nonviolent nature of the protests – which runs counter to the regime's description – and "may have prevented security forces from unleashing more firepower to crush the demonstrations," the LA Times reports.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused the Syrian government of allowing the embassy attack to happen in a bid to deflect its citizens' attention from the country's uprising. She warned Mr. Assad that he was on shaky ground with the US, the Guardian reported. International law requires that host countries protect foreign mission staff and property.

"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," she said. "It just doesn't work."

"President Assad is not indispensable and we have absolutely nothing invested in him remaining in power," she added. "From our perspective, he has lost legitimacy."

According to the Washington Post, this is the first time that the US has called into question Assad's right to be in power.

A State Department official told the Post that a television broadcast on a private, pro-government television station owned by Rami Makhlouf, Assad's cousin, urged Syrians to "express their anger at the ambassadors' visit to Hama." An official at the Damascus embassy said that protesters arrived at the embassy in buses and that the security forces assigned to guard the embassy delayed responding to US requests for help.

The incident may call into question the Obama administration's decision to post a US ambassador in Syria, but the reception Mr. Ford received in Hama may undermine congressional critics, Dan Murphy wrote yesterday in the Monitor.

But on Friday, both ambassadors were greeted warmly in Hama and on that day, at least, the protesters weren't attacked. That's something that proponents of having an ambassador in Syria point to as an argument in their favor. Assad's regime may be killing and torturing protesters to hold on to power, but having a strong diplomatic presence can yield dividends, they argue – whether it's by acting as a restraining force on violence or as an avenue of communication with the regime.

Nick Blanford reported for us today that diplomats told him that the US embassy suffered "extensive damage" in the attack, but also reckons that Ford will remain in harness for some time yet. "The Obama administration’s congressional critics, who opposed his being sent to Damascus in the first place, would seize on his recall," Blanford wrote. "Furthermore, the administration has repeatedly emphasized the importance of having an ambassador in Damascus to convey Washington's views to the Syrian leadership."

Ford is the first US ambassador to be posted in Damascus since 2005, when former President George W. Bush removed its ambassador in response to the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in which the Bush administration suspected Syria played a role, according to the AP.

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