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U.S. accuses Syria of unleashing mob attacks on U.S., French embassies

Syrian soldiers stood by while protesters stormed the compounds, Western officials say. Washington says the incident was an attempt to deflect international focus from Syria's deadly crackdown on activists.

July 12, 2011|By Brian Bennett and Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times
  • The smashed window of the U.S. embassy is seen after pro-government protesters attacked the embassy compound in Damascus, Syria. The Arabic writing on the wall reads, "When our boys are weaned, they are worshipped by even the strongest men. Jablah youth, Assad's eagles."
The smashed window of the U.S. embassy is seen after pro-government protesters… (Associated Press )

Reporting from Washington and Beirut — The Obama administration angrily accused Syrian authorities of instigating attacks on the U.S. and French embassies in Damascus to divert attention from Syria's deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, marking a sharp escalation in tensions between the West and the regime of embattled President Bashar Assad.

U.S. Marine guards fired multiple volleys of tear gas Monday, but pro-government demonstrators were able to climb a fence, scale the roof of an embassy building, knock out security cameras, smash windows and raise a Syrian flag, U.S. officials said.

Syrian soldiers stood by and did not help disperse the crowd, said a U.S. official who was briefed on the protest and spoke on condition of anonymity. French security forces fired warning shots because of the passivity of Syrian soldiers at the French Embassy, the Foreign Ministry said in Paris. Protesters tried to break into the French mission with a battering ram, it said, adding that three employees were hurt.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sharply criticized the attacks, telling reporters at the State Department that the U.S. is not willing to see Assad stay in power to maintain regional stability.

"President Assad is not indispensible, and we have absolutely nothing invested in him remaining in power," said Clinton, adding that Assad has failed to live up to promises to reform.

"From our perspective, he has lost legitimacy," she said. But she stopped short of calling for his ouster.

The protests, possibly coordinated for domestic Syrian consumption, followed visits by U.S. Ambassador Robert S. Ford and French Ambassador Eric Chevallier to the opposition stronghold of Hama late last week as thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators gathered to voice their opposition to the Assad regime's four-decade rule.

The diplomatic visits appear to have humiliated and enraged the Syrian leadership by highlighting the peaceful nature of the anti-government protests in Hama, and may have prevented security forces from unleashing more firepower to crush the demonstrations.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland described the mob that attacked the U.S. Embassy as "thugs," and called the incident "absolutely outrageous." She said a Syrian state television crew appeared to be inciting a crowd of more than 300 people who had gathered around the embassy, which is about 500 feet from Assad's residence.

"The protests were an attempt by the Syrian government to deflect international focus from serious internal problems," said Erin Pelton, another State Department spokeswoman.

The Local Coordinating Committees of Syria, a network of activists, said Monday that nearly 2,000 Syrians had been killed, 15,000 arrested and many more gone missing in the nearly four-month uprising.

Ford, 53, is known in diplomatic circles as an idealist and an expert on Arab culture and language. He served as the top political advisor at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq for two years and then was appointed envoy to the North African nation of Algeria.

"How ironic that the Syrian government lets an anti-U.S. demonstration proceed freely while their security thugs beat down olive-branch-carrying peaceful protesters elsewhere," Ford said in a statement released Sunday after a smaller protest at the U.S. Embassy.

"Hama and the Syrian crisis is not about the U.S. at all," he said. "This is a crisis … about dignity, human rights and the rule of law."

Analysts said the diplomats' visit to Hama and the Syrians' response exposed intense mistrust between Damascus and the West, and could mark a turning point in their relations.

"Syrian authorities are living in the illusion that the Bashar Assad regime has a tremendous amount of legitimacy," said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Ford's trip shows that the U.S. is no longer counting on the Syrian regime's account of what is happening in the country."

Although U.S. officials have condemned the Syrian government's crackdown against protesters, they have moved cautiously, fearful that Assad's ouster could lead to sectarian warfare or a more repressive government in Syria, or that Assad could try to foment violence in Israel or Lebanon.

Robert Danin, a former State Department official now at the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations, said that calling for Assad's ouster could imply the use of force if he does not comply.

"The United States has very limited tools in what it can do," Danin said. "We can only call for the ouster of a world leader if we're prepared to follow that up with serious steps, and that's a very dangerous game."

Some experts believe Assad's regime may not survive much longer, however.

"The reality is this regime is collapsing, maybe slowly, maybe quickly," said Michael Doran, a former senior director of the National Security Council who now is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Mobs have attacked the U.S. Embassy in Damascus several times over the years. In 1998 during a U.S. bombing campaign against Iraq, protesters scaled the wall of the ambassador's residence, tearing down and burning the U.S. flag as the envoy's wife hid in a bathroom.

Nuland said the State Department was considering whether to send more Marines to augment embassy security.

U.S. diplomats have told Syrian counterparts in Damascus and Washington that the Obama administration expects the Syrian government to reimburse the U.S. government for damage caused during the protests.

brian.bennett@latimes.com

daragahi@latimes.com

Bennett reported from Washington and Daragahi from Beirut. Times staff writer Christine Mai-Duc in Washington, special correspondent Devorah Lauter in Paris and a special correspondent in Damascus contributed to this report.

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