Syria threatens to expel US ambassador

Syria has warned Ambassador Robert Ford not to leave Damascus. That complicates the new US strategy of strengthening the opposition so it can bring about democratic change.

Bassem Tellawi/AP
In this photo taken during a government-organized tour for foreign diplomats and the media, US ambassador in Syria Robert Ford, covers his nose from the smell of the dead bodies during his visit with other foreign diplomats to a mass grave, in Jisr el-Shughour, Syria, on June 20.

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The Syrian government warned US Ambassador Robert Ford yesterday that he risked being expelled from the country if he leaves Damascus again. That threat, coming after Mr. Ford's recent visit to protesters in the flashpoint city of Hama, could potentially complicate the Obama administration's push for a democratic transition in Syria.

According to unnamed administration officials quoted by Washington Post Opinion writer David Ignatius, Ford was seen as leading an effort to unify Syria's diverse opposition movement and help establish solid democratic leadership. One official went so far as to call the ambassador the "vehicle for transition."

Time reports that the opposition's many divisions may be too many and too varied to overcome – and that even if the loose-knit movement did manage to become more unified, it has no clear strategy for unseating the regime.

"The opposition is counting on the economy causing elite members to defect and the country to fall out of government control progressively," says Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. "So long as the military and state elites stick together to fight the opposition, it will be very difficult to bring down the regime."

The opposition has failed to make inroads among the middle and upper classes in Damascus and Aleppo, two regime strongholds. And without "the backbone of Assad's power structure – the Alawite sect that dominates politics and the military, and the business elite," not much can happen. The Alawites have shown little interest in abandoning the regime, and sectarian clashes in Homs likely "scared the [Alawites]," Mr. Landis says.

Ignatius writes that two other factors also complicate Obama's new strategy, put in place after months of waiting for President Bashar al-Assad to make good on promises of reform. They are the military's continued loyalty to the regime and the sort of sectarian violence that was seen in the city of Homs earlier this week.

The weekend clashes in Homs between Sunnis and Alawites, a Shiite offshoot that Mr. Assad and many of his closest supporters belong to, gave a boost to government claims that without Assad's leadership the country would descend into sectarian fighting.

After several days of violence that has killed at least 50, Syrian security forces have moved into the city of Homs to raid homes and make arrests. Human rights activists reported gunfire and tanks in the city streets today, particularly in the Baab al-Sebaa neighborhood.

One hospital in the city ran out of ambulances to dispatch and some doctors were trapped in their homes by gunfire, unable to come to the hospital to treat the wounded, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The Journal notes that Alawites dominate the top ranks of the Army, the security forces, and the loyalist gunmen aiding in the crackdown, known as "shabeeha."

"Syria's demographics, and the way Mr. Assad has relied on loyalist forces to crush dissent, have made a sectarian tint to the uprising almost inevitable," the Journal reports. "Every restive city where the military has been deployed – from Deraa in the South, to Banias on the Western coast, and Homs and Hama in central Syria – has a Sunni-majority population."

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