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US, Syria Clash Over Ambassador’s Hama Visit

Pro-Syrian President Bashar Assad protesters shout slogans as they protest against the visit of the U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford to the Syrian city of Hama, in front the U.S. embassy in Damascus, Syria, July 8, 2011. Hundreds of thousands of Syria

The U.S. and Syrian governments exchanged harsh words Friday over a visit by U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford to the northern Syrian city of Hama, a flashpoint for anti-government protests. The State Department called Syria’s charge that Ford tried to incite violence “absolute rubbish.”

Ford was greeted by a cheering crowd and flowers as he drove Friday through Hama at the close of his overnight visit, and the episode - captured on the Internet video website YouTube - clearly angered Syrian authorities.

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A Syrian Foreign Ministry statement said the American envoy incited what were termed “saboteurs” into acts of violence, and called the visit “obvious proof” of a U.S. role in the anti-government upheaval that has wracked Syria since March.

The comments drew a sharp rejoinder from State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

“Absolute rubbish. The reason for his visit was to stand in solidarity with the right of the Syrian people to demonstrate peacefully, and that’s what he did yesterday,” said Nuland.

Nuland brushed aside a Syrian charge that Ford had gone to Hama without permission, saying the U.S. Embassy in Damascus told the Syrian Defense Ministry in advance that a U.S. delegation would be going to Hama, and that his motorcade passed through a military checkpoint to get there.

“The notion that this was somehow a surprise to the Syrian government, or was in violation of their will doesn’t make any sense," she said. "And frankly what we would say back to the Syrian government is they really need to focus their attentions on what their citizens have to say, rather than spending their time picking at Ambassador Ford.”

Nuland noted that Ford’s visit to Hama coincided with one by the French Ambassador to Syria Eric Chevallier, and said while the two diplomats met there Thursday evening, their visits were not coordinated in advance.

Syria expert David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy welcomed the Ford visit to Hama as the first “unambiguous” demonstration of Obama administration support for the Syrian protest movement.

But he said the gesture will merely be seen in the region as free-lancing by the U.S. envoy, unless the administration starts taking a much tougher policy line toward the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“It is a significant statement for him to go to Hama and seemingly cast his lot, and the American lot, with the people of Syria, to provide some protection for the people of Hama, and to demonstrate where the United States’ sympathies and policies lie," said Schenker. "But this alone is not sufficient. It has to be accompanied by an unambiguous policy statement from Washington saying that we’re with the Syrian people, and that the Assad regime is no longer legitimate, if it ever was.”

The Obama administration to date has stopped short of flatly demanding Assad’s departure, saying he must implement reforms or “get out of the way.”

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