In Amman, Jordan, a Syrian man protests in front of the Syrian embassy. (Reuters )
Reporting from Beirut — Syrian protesters tossed roses onto the vehicle of a surprise visitor to Hama: the American ambassador, who could be seen driving through the symbolically loaded central Syrian city as a massive antigovernment rally got underway Friday.
Ambassador Robert S. Ford's unannounced visit, which outraged Syrian officials, was a show of solidarity with the tens of thousands of protesters pouring into the streets of the nation's towns and cities Friday and a powerful rebuttal to President Bashar Assad's use of deadly force in an attempt to suppress a four-month uprising against his autocratic rule.
At least nine people were killed Friday across Syria by security forces and pro-government gunmen, activists said. The number was impossible to verify because of government restrictions on independent journalists.
It was a day of protest meant to showcase rejection of Assad's "dialogue" initiative. A series of meetings between the regime's deputies and purported opposition figures is set to begin Sunday.
Video posted on the Internet showed crowds as far as the eye could see in Hama, remembered for a brutal 1982 crackdown ordered by Hafez Assad, Bashar's father and predecessor. As many as 30,000 people were believed killed then by government forces who flattened entire districts of the city to quell what was called an Islamist revolt.
"The people want the downfall of the regime!" protesters chanted in a deafening roar Friday, holding a massive national flag in the city's central Asi Square.
"It was a huge, very big demonstration with more than 500,000 all calling for freedom and democracy, and calling for this regime to leave." said Omar Habbal, 57, a civil engineer and businessman in Hama reached by phone. "There was no violence, and no sign of the security forces."
A U.S. official in Washington told The Times that Ford left Hama for Damascus, the Syrian capital, before Friday's protest was fully underway after tmidday prayers. Video posted on the Internet, later confirmed in Washington, showed Hama residents chanting antigovernment slogans as they walked alongside his vehicle. "He was escorted out of town by people from Hama," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
U.S. officials described Ford's visit, which began Thursday, as a show of support for Syrians' right to peacefully seek political change. The official in Washington said Ford did not meet with opposition leaders in the city. "It wasn't meetings," the official said. "He was there to meet with ordinary people."
But the visit, simultaneous with one by the French ambassador, Eric Chevallier, appeared to be designed to send a message to the Syrian government that the world is watching how it treats its people, particularly those in Hama, a city of 700,000 that became a symbol of tyranny in the 1982 crackdown.
"The visit was a very clever and effective way to make sure the Assad regime knows that everyone is watching what it's doing, especially in Hama," said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank. "It's pretty clear that the Assad regime is panicking. They're very confused about what to do."
President Obama appointed Ford during a congressional recess in January, bypassing Republican lawmakers who had delayed his confirmation. The trip to Hama came amid growing criticism in Washington that Ford's continued presence in Damascus gives Assad a diplomatic fig leaf for his regime's violence against political protests.
Syria's state media repeatedly cited comments from unidentified officials and Sunni Muslim clerics angrily denouncing Ford's visit to Hama as interference in the country's domestic affairs and evidence of "instigation" of the protests by Washington. The U.S. State Department said the embassy had obtained permission from the Foreign Ministry to make the diplomatic trip to the city.
The American official in Washington said Ford did not get out of his car Friday. "He was very careful not to interfere" in the protests, the official said. "He left before the protests started."
Syrian security forces launched a sweeping military assault on the city last week after massive protests led to the firing of the provincial governor. This week's crowd appeared to be as large, or possibly larger.
Some observers speculated that security forces Friday focused their energy instead on towns and cities around Damascus and on Homs, the third-largest city, knowing that the mass demonstrations in Hama could inspire similar outbursts of civil disobedience.
In Dumeir, a Damascus suburb, about "2,000 protesters came out of the mosque and around it staging a peaceful protest, but that ended" when security forces fired tear gas and live ammunition, a man who gave his name as Hossein told The Times in a phone interview.
"There is still gunfire at this moment and they're raiding house by house, one after another," he said Friday afternoon. "They're making random arrests and taking anyone they see in the streets."
Thousands took to the streets in the ethnic Kurdish cities of Qamishli and Amouda, shouting, "Azadi!" a call for freedom in a language and culture long suppressed by Assad's Arab nationalist government.
Sandels is a special correspondent.