U.S. Diplomat Causes Firestorm with Visit to Rebellious Syrian City

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Muzaffar Salman / AP

Syrians in support of President Bashar Assad hold Assad's portrait and wave their country's flag as they protest in front the U.S. embassy in Damascus against the visit of Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, to the Syrian city of Hama on Friday, July 8, 2011

Some observers say it was a provocative move, others call it overdue, and then there are those who say it is completely unwelcome. On Thursday, July 7, U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford traveled to the Syrian city of Hama, the scene of a brutal, still resonant 1982 massacre, to express solidarity with protesters who are now calling for the fall of President Bashar Assad's regime. After weeks of cautious, careful U.S. criticism of Assad, Ford's physical presence in the city that has now defied both Assads — the father and former President Hafez, and his son Bashar — was a hugely symbolic, indeed taunting, gesture, one soon mimicked by the French ambassador. But will it do more harm than good?

Amateur video posted on YouTube showed the U.S. ambassador — or, at least, his champagne-colored jeep — being warmly received by olive-branch-waving Syrians as they chanted, "The people want the fall of the regime" and "We will only kneel to God." Some demonstrators placed red roses on the windshield and hood of the vehicle as a male voice, presumably that of the cameraman, said the U.S. ambassador had visited Hama "to see the humanitarian situation for himself." State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday that Ford (who left Hama Friday afternoon) met with residents. He also visited a hospital, according to several accounts, in a trip that infuriated Syrian officials.

Damascus quickly characterized the ambassador's visit as being consistent with the regime's longstanding argument that anti-Assad protesters were either actively or unwittingly part of a foreign conspiracy to bring down the Assad government because of its anti-Israeli foreign policy and its close ties to Iran. The trip was "clear evidence of the U.S. involvement in the ongoing events in Syria and its bids to aggravate the situations which destabilize Syria," the regime said via its national news agency SANA.

Bouthaina Shaaban, Syria's presidential and media adviser, told the BBC on Friday that Ford had not asked for permission to visit the restive city and described Ford's action as "an escalation" that had created "great protest and resentment among the Syrian people." The Interior Ministry also weighed in, branding those Ford met with as "saboteurs" whom he had "incited to more violence and [to] protest and to refuse dialogue."

Some anti-Assad Syrians did not approve of the Ford visit. On Twitter, Shakeeb al-Jabri, whose profile says he is a Syrian living in Beirut, said Ford's visit may backfire. "Some on-the-fence Syrians did not appreciate Ford's visit to Hama," he wrote. "They see it as meddling. Even those leaning more to the side of the revolutionaries. The US, especially the US, should butt out."

Nevertheless, many observers feel the ambassador may have injected a bit of adrenaline into the antiregime movement. Andrew Tabler, next-generation fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of the upcoming book In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria, says Ford's visit will help the anti-Assad forces. "The message to the regime is clear: The international community is watching your every move on the ground, and you will be held responsible. No free passes," he tells TIME. Still, he cautions against taking U.S. support further: "If there was a U.S. aircraft carrier off the Syrian coast, then it would be a different matter," he says.

Omar al-Habbal, 57, a Hama resident and opponent of the regime who is now part of the Local Coordination Committees, a leading activist group, says he welcomed the U.S. ambassador's trip to his hometown but only "as a witness." "We thank him for coming to see the situation for himself, but we do not want international intervention of any sort, not military or financial," he tells TIME in a phone interview from Hama, which on Friday reportedly witnessed a half-million-strong anti-Assad demonstration. "We can do this ourselves. We just want moral support. We know that we are likely to face claims of being foreign stooges, but we're confident that most people now know that Syrian state media is full of lies."

Stephanie Brancaforte, director for Avaaz, an online aggregator of activist movements, says it was "about time" foreign government officials went to see for themselves the situation in Syrian cities, but adds that it wasn't enough. "This visit may offer temporary deterrence, but if we are to have any hope of ending the bloodshed, the international community must wake from its slumber and take strong [United Nations Security Council] action to sanction the Assad regime and refer the massive criminality to the International Criminal Court for investigation," she said in a statement.

Still, the Syrian Twittersphere was alight with comments about Ford's visit, with many calling for a U.S. ambassador in every Syrian city. Ford's visit came just days ahead of a "national dialogue conference," planned for Sunday, July 10, that most members of the opposition have roundly rejected, given that the regime's security forces still have tanks parked in neighborhoods and snipers reportedly trained on unarmed civilians. It's unclear who will attend the meeting, but al-Habbal, along with other activists on the ground, has dismissed many attendees as being unrepresentative of the protesters. "Who is the government going to have a dialogue with?" he asks. "We are all wanted by the authorities. They haven't offered us amnesty, so how can we talk to them?" It's a good question, one the regime will have to honestly consider if it truly wants to find a way out of its impasse with its real foes. The regime may also want to reconsider its tactic of blaming foreign hands for all of its woes. Tellingly, it did not comment on the French ambassador's visit to Hama. Perhaps that's because anti-French sentiment in Syria is clearly not a rich vein to tap into.