That about 10 demonstrators were allowed to scale the walls surrounding the US Embassy in Damascus today was alarming.
Bashar al-Assad's security state is notoriously effective. Only a few hundred protesters were outside the embassy's gates and there was ample warning. Small groups have been gathering outside to throw eggs and fruit at the embassy for the past few days. And the protest was, at any rate, in Mr. Assad's support.
Though no one was hurt at the US embassy, three French guards were injured at their embassy during a similar protest. The incidents were quickly brought to a close: In the US case, thanks to the intervention of the Marine detachment guarding the embassy. But it will probably add fuel to the fire of those in Washington who have been arguing that President Obama should recall Ambassador Robert Ford in response to the Syrian uprising, which has seen over 1,500 people killed, so far, for challenging Mr. Assad's rule.
Mr. Ford has been on the job for about six months, and was the first person in the post since the Bush administration withdrew Ambassador Margaret Scobey in 2005 in response to the assassination of Lebanese politician Rafik Hariri, which the US blamed on Syria.
Mr. Obama fought considerable congressional opposition to get Ford's appointment approved, arguing that a strong diplomatic voice in Damascus could nudge Syria toward peace talks with Israel and do more to secure US interests than studied disinterest in relations. But Obama's congressional critics argue that his engagement strategy is failing.
Ford visited Hama on Friday as did his French counterpart Eric Chevalier. It was a stunning event: US ambassadors usually stay out of volatile situations, and Hama has been the scene of both massive protests against Assad and the shooting of demonstrators in response. The US embassy in Egypt, for instance, steered well clear of the protests that swept Hosni Mubarak from power earlier this year, though their locus at Tahrir Square was just a few hundred yards away from the embassy (to be sure, the protesters view that the US was steadfastly supporting Mubarak would have made an ambassadorial visit a dicey proposition).
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."
But if protests continue, and are matched by government troops firing on and jailing more protesters, relations are bound to further deteriorate. While unproven, there was a whiff of government incitement about the protests at the two embassies today.
The Assad regime was furious about the visit to Hama, site of a famous massacre carried out by troops under his father Hafez in 1982. During the weekend, State TV devoted a large amount of time to condemning the visit and the US more generally. Today, the State Department blamed the Syrian government for today's attack. "A television station that is heavily influenced by Syrian authorities encouraged this violent demonstration," the State Department wrote in a statement.
The US embassy has weathered serious attacks in Damascus before. In 1998, then Ambassador Ryan Crocker's wife had to take refuge in an embassy safe-room when a stone-throwing mob overran it. Then, crowds were furious at the Desert Fox air campaign against Iraq. Mr. Crocker was not recalled. In 2006, protesters in Damascus burned the Danish, Chilean, and Norwegian embassies apparently angry about cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper.