Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned what she termed an “inexcusable assault” on the U.S. ambassador to Syria by a pro-regime crowd as he met an opposition figure Thursday in Damascus. Syria is blaming the United States for a violent turn in anti-government unrest.
The U.S.-Syrian relationship has taken a new downward turn, with the government of President Bashar Assad accusing Washington of inciting armed groups to violence, and a pro-regime crowd attacking U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford.
A jeering crowd of about 100 Syrians pelted the U.S. diplomat and aides with tomatoes and debris Thursday as they arrived for a visit in central Damascus with opposition figure Hassan Abdelazim.
The U.S. envoy took refuge in the Syrian politician’s office as the pro-regime crowd pounded on the door and later badly damaged U.S. embassy vehicles that were sent to the scene.
Syrian police were said to have arrived after more than an hour’s delay and escorted Ford and his colleagues, all uninjured, back to the embassy.
It was the second incident of its kind in less than three months, following a mob attack on the U.S. mission in July, and it drew an angry response from the Obama administration.
At a press event with Nigerian Foreign Minister Olugbenga Ashiru, Secretary Clinton condemned what she termed a “wholly unjustified” attempt to intimidate U.S. diplomats through violence.
“This inexcusable assault is clearly part of an ongoing campaign of intimidation aimed at not only American diplomats but diplomats from other countries, foreign observers, who are raising questions about what’s going on inside Syria," said Clinton. "It reflects an intolerance on the part of the regime and its supporters, and it is deeply regrettable."
The Obama administration has resisted calls from Congress to withdraw Ambassador Ford to protest the Syrian crackdown on demonstrators that U.N. human rights officials say has killed more than 2700 people since March.
U.S. officials say in the absence of international media and human rights monitors in Syria, Ford is risking personal harm to monitor events and maintain contacts with the Syrian opposition.
Clinton called the veteran U.S. diplomat a “vital advocate” for the aspirations of a people “under siege” by the Assad government, and she urged the U.S. Senate to confirm Ford, who is in Syria on a temporary White House appointment.
The attack on Ford coincided with new Syrian charges that the United States is inciting armed groups to violence against security forces.
The Syrian foreign ministry singled out Deputy State Department Spokesman Mark Toner for saying earlier this week that recently reported incidents of violent resistance were “unfortunately a natural development” in the face of regime “brutality.”
Toner told reporters Thursday the Syrian charge is an attempt by the Damascus government to deflect responsibility.
“It’s another attempt by the Syrian government to make this about us versus them, when it really is about the Syrian government against its own people," said Toner. "And it’s really about the courage and determination of the Syrian people who continue to stand up day after day to express their universal rights, in the face of ongoing brutality and violence.”
News reports have suggested that deserters from the Syrian security forces and other armed opponents have staged attacks on army units trying to quell protests in remote parts of the country.
However, Toner said the broad majority of Assad government opponents appear committed to non-violent resistance, and also oppose calls for Libya-style outside military intervention in Syria.