Syria Boosts Security at U.S. Embassy as Obama Criticizes Assad

Syria Boosts Security at U.S. Embassy
The Syrian flag flies outside the damaged windows of the French Embassy following a gathering of pro-government protesters in Damascus on July 11. Photographer: Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

Syria bolstered security around the U.S. Embassy in Damascus after a mob attack on the compound by backers of Bashar al-Assad drew worldwide criticism and prompted a rebuke from President Barack Obama.

The embassy’s American flag, which had been stolen during the assault and replaced with a Syrian one, was returned by the Foreign Ministry, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in Washington. Police also arrested six protesters who took part in throwing rocks and spray-painting the walls, she said. The French Embassy in the capital was also targeted by pro-Assad demonstrators.

While the danger to the embassies has subsided since the violence two days ago, diplomatic exchanges between the U.S. and Syria have become more strident. Tensions between Syria and the U.S., as well as France, have escalated since the countries’ ambassadors made trips to the city of Hama, a hotspot for anti-regime sentiment, to meet residents who have been targeted in a crackdown on dissent.

“Increasingly you’re seeing President Assad lose legitimacy in the eyes of his people,” Obama said in an interview on the “CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley” yesterday. “We will take whatever actions necessary in order to protect our embassy.”

Assad “has missed opportunity after opportunity to present a genuine reform agenda,” and “that’s why we’ve been working at an international level to make sure that we keep the pressure up, to see if we can bring some real change in Syria,” the U.S. president said.

‘Not Indispensable”

Obama’s phrasing on Assad’s legitimacy was less definitive than the remarks a day earlier by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She said Assad “has lost legitimacy” and was “not indispensable.”

Clinton signaled that the administration is “increasingly complacent” about the possibility the Assad dynasty will fall from power, according to Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor and author of “Engaging the Muslim World.”

Clinton’s rejection of Assad’s legitimacy, an assessment the Obama administration had previously been reluctant to make, was a shift from March, when she said some U.S. lawmakers saw Assad as a reformer.

“Clinton seemed to be warning Assad not to rely too much on U.S. fear of the Muslim Brotherhood,” the region’s largest Sunni Muslim organization, which has sided with the opposition, Cole wrote on his blog.

Hama’s 1982 Massacre

The Syrian government, controlled by the Alawite minority, a Shiite Muslim offshoot, has ruled over the Sunni majority since Assad’s father and predecessor took power in 1970. President Hafez al-Assad used the army in 1982 to crush a rebellion in Hama, blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood, with a massacre that Human Rights Watch said killed about 10,000 people.

“Assad is betting that the U.S. fears the alternative more than the status quo,” Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, a Qatar branch of the Washington research institution, said in a telephone interview. “But this is not 1982 where you can kill 30,000 and think people won’t know. What is happening right now is happening in real time. The more you kill, the more people will flood the streets.”

At least 100 people have been detained across the country this week, Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, and Mahmoud Merhi, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, said today. The arrests took place in Damascus, its suburbs and flashpoint cities such as Hama and Homs and the southern province of Daraa, where protests against Assad’s rule began in March. Those held include students, and a doctor taken from a clinic, Qurabi said.

United Nations

The improved protection around the embassies did little to boost Syria’s image in the international community.

The United Nations Security Council yesterday condemned the attacks. Germany, which holds the rotating presidency of the panel, said it will press for action to censure Syria. A U.S. and European effort to condemn the repression of anti-government protesters in a draft resolution has been blocked since late May by opposition led by China and Russia.

“We must convince China and Russia that blocking it is indecent,” French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said on La Chaine Info television today. “It is indecent because Al-Assad has mobilized enormous resources to neutralize his opposition, and countries that are moving forward like Russia or like China, which claim to belong to the community of nations, must accept common rules: A government does not respond to the opposition using cannon fire.”

Ambassadors’ Visits

Tensions between Syria and the U.S. escalated last week with the visit to Hama of Robert Ford, the first U.S. ambassador to Syria in six years. Syrian authorities said the visit was proof the U.S. was seeking to “incite” rebellion. France’s ambassador, Eric Chevalier, also visited wounded people and their families at a Hama hospital.

Since Ford’s July 7 trip, pro-Assad demonstrators went from throwing eggs and tomatoes at the U.S. and French embassies to climbing over compound walls in the July 11 assault and injuring three French guards.

Syria’s government responded by calling Clinton’s remarks “provocative” and “further evidence of blatant U.S. intervention in the internal affairs of Syria,” according to a statement carried by the official Syrian Arab News Agency.

Ford’s Impressions

While Republicans in Washington clamor for the recall of Ford in protest, the Obama administration has indicated it wants him to stay and keep reaching out to Syrian citizens and relay his firsthand impressions.

Anti-regime protests that began in March have posed the biggest challenge to Assad’s rule since he inherited power from his father 11 years ago. They have been part of a wave of unrest across the Middle East and North Africa this year that has unseated the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia.

A committee of Syrian intellectuals and academics, convened by Assad to hold a “national dialogue” to bridge the country’s divides, called yesterday for a full review of the constitution, the creation of a human rights council and the release of all political prisoners. Some leading members of the opposition boycotted the meeting.

Assad has blamed the protests on a foreign conspiracy, while saying that the demands of demonstrators “have merit” and that changes are needed. The crackdown in Syria has left more than 1,700 dead, according to rights groups. At least 20,000 people have been arrested since the demonstrations began, with half still in detention, Qurabi said.

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