Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stormed the US embassy in Damascus Monday during a demonstration responding to American Ambassador Robert Ford's weekend visit to Hama, the scene of the country's largest antiregime protests.
Waving Syrian and Russian flags and carrying portraits of President Assad, the crowd surged around the US embassy in the Abu Rummaneh neighborhood. Several men scaled the walls and at least 10 of them defeated the barbed wire defenses to enter the compound, according to diplomatic sources.
The sources said that the embassy suffered “extensive damage,” but none of the staff was hurt. Syrian security forces watched the protests from the sidelines and intervened only to disperse the crowds after the embassy compound was penetrated.
The French embassy also reportedly came under attack by another group of protesters.
Despite the seriousness of the incident, Mr. Ford is unlikely to be recalled over the incident. Ford has been in Damascus for only six months and the Obama administration’s congressional critics, who opposed his being sent to Damascus in the first place, would seize on his recall.
Furthermore, the administration has repeatedly emphasized the importance of having an ambassador in Damascus to convey Washington's views to the Syrian leadership.
Ford and his French counterpart, Ambassador Eric Chevallier, traveled on Friday to the city of Hama in central Syria where they interacted with the protesters before returning to the Syrian capital.
The unauthorized visit drew a sharp reaction from the Syrian authorities. According to the Syrian SANA news agency, both Ford and Mr. Chevallier were summoned to the Syrian foreign ministry Sunday.
However, American diplomatic sources denied that Ford had been summoned and that the meeting with Walid Muallem, the Syrian foreign minister, had been scheduled ahead of time.
Nonetheless, the Hama trip and the violent protest outside the US embassy highlight the worsening relations between Washington and Damascus as the four-month-old confrontation between the regime and the opposition protest movement grinds on.
In his first two years in office, President Obama sought to improve relations with Syria following the diplomatic freeze that existed for much of the Bush administration’s second term. He overrode congressional opposition to dispatch Ford to Damascus in January.
The previous ambassador to Syria, Margaret Scobey, was withdrawn in February 2005 following the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister whose death in a truck bomb explosion was widely blamed on Syria. But efforts to persuade the Syrians and Israelis to resume peace talks came to an end when antiregime protests erupted across Syria in March.
Washington has slapped sanctions against Assad and some leading regime figures and warned that the Syrian president must institute reforms if he wishes to maintain any legitimacy. Human rights groups estimate as many as 1,500 people have died in the past four months and some 12,000 have been arrested.
Diplomatic efforts to form a united front to pressure Assad have failed to materialize, however. Opposition by Russia and China has stalled the passage of a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the violence in Syria, which explains the presence of Russian flags among regime supporters outside the American embassy Monday.
Protests against embassies that have caused displeasure to the Syrian authorities is not a unique occurrence in Damascus. In February 2006, a mob attacked the Danish embassy in Damascus after European newspapers published caricatures of the prophet Muhammad.
The protesters burned not only the Danish embassy but also those belonging to Sweden, Chile, and Norway located in the vicinity. The security forces who were watching the protests only intervened when the demonstrators turned their attention to the French embassy.