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US ambassador journeys to heart of Syria’s revolt

American and French ambassadors attend largest anti-government rally in Hama.

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Anti-government protesters gather in Hama, Syria Friday where the U.S. and French ambassadors witnessed the demonstration. (Abumalek/GlobalPost)

BEIRUT, Lebanon — America’s ambassador to Damascus today had a ringside seat for the largest ever protest calling for the downfall of the Assad family’s 41-year dictatorship, breaking protocol to visit the northern Syrian city of Hama, where he was received by cheering crowds waving olive branches and handed a letter and CDs by local activists documenting human rights abuses.

“The visit by the U.S. ambassador is a move we welcome and residents appreciate it highly because it is another indication that the world is on our side,” said a local activist.

“We cannot predict what U.S. policy will look like after this visit but we emphasize that we are against any foreign intervention. But that does not prevent us from using all tools available to deliver the voice of the people to the outside world,” said the activist.

Three separate sources in Hama, all experienced activists, estimated the size of today’s crowd in the city at between 500,000 and 600,000 which, if confirmed, would make it the largest ever protest against the Assad regime.

Citizen videos out of Hama showed two central squares thronged with people, the first around the clock tower in Assi Square, the second outside a municipal building.

In the absence of security forces, the massive gathering appeared to have an almost carnival-like atmosphere, with protesters singing and carrying a giant home-made Syrian flag which extended nearly a mile through the center of the city.

Ambassador Robert Ford — who was appointed directly by President Barack Obama in late December 2010, the first American ambassador to Damascus since 2005 — infuriated Syria’s ever paranoid authorities when he broke with diplomatic protocol and journeyed to Hama on Thursday without informing the Foreign Ministry.

SANA, the state-run news agency, scorned Ford’s visit, describing it as “clear evidence of the U.S. involvement in the events taking place in Syria and its attempt to escalate the situation, which disturbs the security and stability of the country.”

But having struggled to explain why their ambassador visited northern Syria on a June 20 state-run tour hosted by the Syrian military, the State Department was swift to back Ford’s unusually bold move.

“The fundamental intention was to make absolutely clear with his physical presence that we stand with those Syrians who are expressing their right to speak for change,” said a statement from the State Department.

Ford was joined by France’s ambassador to Syria Eric Chevallier. Four months into the uprising, the presence of two ambassadors from Western nations with key interests in Syria was the strongest public signal by Western diplomats inside Syria of support for the popular uprising.

A video posted to YouTube today showed a silver SUV pulling through Hama’s Assi Square, identifiable by the massive purple banner protesters hung last week from the square’s clock tower reading “Long live free Syria. Down with Bashar al-Assad.”

A voice on the video exclaims, “The ambassador of America, in Hama!” as people are seen throwing rose petals onto the windscreen before breaking into the familiar chant: “The people want to topple the regime!”

Ford’s visit followed a week in which the Assad regime sought to wrest back control of Hama by force. Last Friday saw unprecedented protests and acts of defiance in Hama, including a traditional Arabic call and response song between thousands of protesters in Hama’s main square, singing lyrics that ridiculed President Bashar al-Assad in a way never seen, or heard, before in Syria.

The next day, Assad sacked Hama’s reform-minded governor, Ahmed Abdul-Aziz, a former professor of International Law at Damascus University who residents said had tried to stop security forces killing protesters.

In his place, Hama was again turned over to Colonel Mohammed Muflah, the local head of Military Secret Police and the man who oversaw the June 3 massacre of at least 67 protesters in a single day.

In the three days leading up to Ford’s visit at least 35 people were killed and more than 700 arrested by security forces, according to reporting gathered by Avaaz, an international human rights group calling for Assad regime to be investigated by the International Criminal Court.

Several protesters expressed relief that Ford’s presence would ensure their safety, for a few hours at least, in a city where the military appears to be weighing a full-blown assault.

Tanks have massed at Hama’s main entrances, stirring dark memories of the 1982 assault, ordered by Assad’s father, Hafez, to crush an armed rebellion by the Muslim Brotherhood. That attacked killed between 20,000 and 30,000 people and remains one of the worst acts of violence perpetrated by an Arab regime against its own people.

“The regime often fires on protesters randomly but the presence of the U.S. ambassador will protect them. The regime would not do anything stupid to make it even more isolated,” said one protester.

However, echoing several other interviewees, the protester expressed reservations about U.S. policy toward Syria and its unwillingness to call for Assad to step down, concerns heightened by a controversial June 30 report in The Guardian claiming the U.S. was pushing a roadmap for reforms that would overhaul the regime, but leave Assad in power.

That report is now the subject of a legal complaint by two leading Syrian opposition figures who the Guardian claimed had been working with the U.S. on the roadmap, a claim denied by all sides.

“Frankly we do not know the reason for [Ford’s] visit,” said the protester. “Is it because he cares for Hama and worries about security entering the city? Or is he doing his part in an under the table deal with the regime? We know the U.S. has an interest in this regime staying.”

America’s massive military and political support for Israel, whose northern border with Syria has long been its most quiet, often leads Syrians to believe Washington sees the fall of the Assad regime as dangerously destabilizing to Israel’s security.

Ford arrived in Hama on Thursday, reportedly staying at the Afamia Hotel overlooking the Orontes River and Hama’s famous creaking waterwheels.

According to an activist from the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), a grassroots opposition movement, Ford visited two hospitals, Hourani and Bader, in Hama to speak with injured protesters and the doctors treating them.

Both the LCC and the second main grassroots activist network, the Syrian Revolution Coordinators Union (SRCU), said members met with Ford in Hama but were quick to stress it was in an unofficial capacity, an indicator of the sensitivity inside Syria of being seen to take support from an outside power, particularly the U.S., whose invasion of Iraq in 2003 a majority of Syrians deeply opposed.

Activists did, however, hand Ford and Chevallier a long letter addressed “to representatives of the free world” and four CDs they said contained evidence of torture, killing and other human rights abuses committed against protesters by Assad’s security forces.

“Note that the crimes carried out by the regime, including killing, arrests, displacement of the population, violations of human rights, killing of children, abduction of the wounded, burial of bodies in mass graves and the starvation of people, have intensified recently, and are still practiced on the Syrian people,” the letter reads, a copy of which was posted on the SRCU's Facebook page.

The letter made no demands on the ambassadors except to urge them to work to remove international legitimacy from Assad and his regime and to secure international media access to Syria in order to report on the crackdown. Sky News and CNN now have correspondents in Damascus, but government minders attempt to restrict their movement and access to protesters.

The letter concludes: “We call upon the honest people of the world to help the Syrian people to self-determination and the right to establish a civil state that guarantees them freedom of expression and their right to take advantage of the wealth of a country that respects their rights.”