Did Syria order mob attacks on embassies? And how should US respond?

Protesters attacked the US and French embassies in Damascus after the countries' ambassadors visited the symbolically key city of Hama. Did Syria allow the attacks or order them?

An attached paper on the US embassy reads: 'Ford go out now,' referring to the US ambassador Robert Ford after pro-government protesters attacked the embassy compound in Damascus, Syria, Monday, July 11.

Already-tense relations between the United States and Syria deteriorated further Monday after anti-US protesters attacked and damaged the US Embassy in Damascus.

The mob attack, which followed days of angry demonstrations outside the US and French embassies in the Syrian capital, was the most serious turn to date in several months of souring relations as opposition forces have continued to challenge the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

A State Department spokesperson said elements in Syria aligned with the government had “encouraged” the attack, while the government had been “slow to respond” to the violence. The official also noted the Syrian government’s responsibility under international law to protect diplomatic facilities.

But other diplomatic experts went further, saying that if the US Embassy in Damascus was able to come under attack, it was because the government wanted the attack to happen.

“This is essentially a government act,” says Wayne White, a former State Department official who is now an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington. “Normally the government doesn’t want things to happen to foreign embassies, and this is a very controlled society,” he says. “So at the very least they have to allow this kind of thing to happen.”

The pro-government protesters in Damascus – which the State Department said were egged on by a Syrian television station closely aligned with the government – also attacked the US ambassador’s residence and the French Embassy.

In its own statement Monday, the French government said its embassy was "the target of attacks and acts of vandalism by well-organized groups under the eyes of Syrian security forces, who were clearly not in a hurry to halt the violence." French officials said the security forces went so far as to allow the mob to use a "battering ram" to try to break down the embassy gates.

But the most serious damage resulted at the US Embassy, where protesters managed to scale a wall and then smash windows and spray paint “dog” on the wall – a particularly harsh epithet in Arab culture, in this case intended for US Ambassador Robert Ford.

Ambassador Ford infuriated the regime and its supporters last week by visiting the city of Hama, the symbolic epicenter of the Syrian opposition movement. Ford, the highest-ranking American official in Syria, visited Hama – as did his French counterpart – after reports emerged of Syrian security forces surrounding and attacking the city.

Ford was greeted enthusiastically by residents of Hama, but the government cited what it says was an unauthorized visit as proof that the US is fomenting antigovernment unrest in Syria.

With pro-Assad protesters pelting the US Embassy with eggs and tomatoes over the weekend, Ford wrote on his Facebook page Sunday, “How ironic that the Syrian government lets an anti-US demonstration proceed freely while their security thugs beat down olive branch-carrying peaceful protesters elsewhere.”

An already-bubbling debate in Washington over whether the US ambassador in Syria should stay or leave is sure to heat up further after Monday’s attack.

Some Republicans in Congress are calling on President Obama to demonstrate US rejection of Assad’s tactics by calling Ford back to Washington. The US had no ambassador in Damascus for five years under former President George W. Bush in protest against Syria’s alleged covert activities in neighboring Lebanon.

The MEI’s Mr. White says deciding the US ambassador’s future after an embassy attack won’t be easy – but he adds that pulling him out “would mean fewer eyes and ears in the country at a time when we just might want them.”

The US ambassador’s departure may be exactly what the Assad regime is angling for, White says – or the government may prefer that Ford stay in Damascus, he adds, but be intimidated just enough to stop any forays into opposition strongholds.

“A security breach at an embassy is a very serious thing, and I have no doubt the discussions of paring down the embassy staff are already under way,” White says. “But if you pull the ambassador you won’t have anyone to go in and read the riot act to the highest levels of the government,” he adds. “And if the ambassador leaves, nobody is going to be visiting Hama anymore.”

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