Mobs attack US, French embassies in Syria
Protest visit by ambassadors to key opposition city
BEIRUT - Hundreds of Syrian government supporters attacked the US Embassy in Damascus yesterday, smashing windows and spray-painting walls with obscenities and graffiti that called the American ambassador a dog. Guards at the French Embassy fired in the air to ward off another group of protesters.
The sharp escalation in tensions followed a visit last week by the American and French ambassadors to the city of Hama, a stronghold of opposition to authoritarian President Bashar Assad.
Syrian authorities were angered by the visit and by American Ambassador Robert Ford’s harsh criticism afterward of the government crackdown on a 4-month-old uprising. Ford’s residence was also attacked yesterday.
The United States and France both accused Syrian forces of being too slow to respond and demanded the government abide by its international obligations to protect diplomatic missions and allow envoys freedom of movement. The United States formally protested, calling the attacks “outrageous’’ and saying protesters were incited by a television station heavily influenced by Syrian authorities.
“Ford get out now,’’ protesters wrote on a paper hung on the US Embassy’s fence. “The people want to kick out the dog,’’ read graffiti scrawled in red on the wall of the embassy, along with another line cursing America. The protesters smashed the embassy sign hanging over one gate.
The United States said it would seek compensation for damage.
Syrian-US relations have been mired in mutual distrust for years. But yesterday’s attacks were the worst such violence since 2000, when a stone-throwing mob vandalized the US Embassy and ambassador’s residence over American and British airstrikes against Iraq.
The attacks pose a renewed challenge to the Obama administration. The White House has criticized the Syrian regime’s violent crackdown on peaceful protests but has refrained from calling for an end to the Assad family’s four decades of rule, seemingly wary of pressing too hard as it tries to wind down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and it faces criticism for being part of the coalition battling Moammar Khadafy in Libya.
The United States said about 300 “thugs’’ breached the wall of the compound before being dispersed by US Marine guards. No injuries were reported.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the mob got onto the roof of one building, spray-painted graffiti, and broke windows and security cameras. Some lobbed fruits and vegetables at the compound.
A witness said protesters scaled a fence, smashed windows, and raised a Syrian flag at the embassy.
Nuland said that Syrian security forces, who are supposed to guard the mission, were slow to respond.
After the crowd at the embassy was dispersed, the protesters moved to the ambassador’s residence and attacked it, Nuland said.
There were similar scenes at the French Embassy, where guards fired in the air to hold back Assad loyalists who attacked the compound. The French Foreign Ministry said three embassy workers were injured as “well-organized groups’’ smashed windows and destroyed the ambassador’s car.
French Ambassador Eric Chevalier and Ford made separate visits to Hama on Thursday. The State Department said the trip was to support the right of Syrians to demonstrate peacefully.