U.S. Accuses Damascus In Embassy Attacks

Jul 12, 2011
Originally published on July 12, 2011 2:01 pm

U.S. officials accuse the Syrian government of orchestrating Monday's attack on the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Damascus. Supporters of President Bashar Assad scaled the embassy fence, smashed bullet-proof glass and security cameras, and climbed onto the roof. The French Embassy was also targeted.

The assault came three days after a surprise visit by the American and French ambassadors to the city of Hama to show support for peaceful protests there.

Hours after the assault, a pro-Assad crowd was still on the street and Syrian riot police were out in force. But U.S. officials charged that the protection squad had done nothing to stop the rock-throwing mob that attacked the embassy. By late afternoon, a Syrian flag still fluttered from the compound's security fence, and anti-American graffiti remained on the outside wall.

Wrapped in a Syrian flag, Mohieddin Jaafar said he took aim at the U.S. Embassy and the ambassador's residence nearby.

"We break the American house and the embassy. We want to say 'Go out America. Go out France,' " Jaafar said.

The attack on the French embassy a few blocks away appeared to have been even more violent. French officials said protesters used a battering ram to try to get into the embassy garage, and three guards were hurt trying to disperse them.

Later in the day, a small group of protesters came back to burn the French flag — and point out the damage to visitors. "We Syrian people, yes, we broke this, and the American embassy," one protester said.

In Washington, D.C., and in Paris, officials charged that Syrian authorities instigated the embassy attacks and that a television station owned by the president's cousin incited the mob. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sharply criticized the assault. In the harshest terms yet, she said Monday that President Assad has lost his legitimacy.

Tensions have been rising after the visit of Ambassador Robert Ford to the city of Hama last Friday. Syrian officials were outraged by the ambassador's trip — and his Facebook comments underscoring the peaceful nature of the protest.

But the diplomatic tempest overshadowed a meeting outside the capital, a gathering proposed by Assad to find a political solution to four months of protests. Opposition figures boycotted and organizers of the street protests weren't invited, but in this unusually open discussion, those views were expressed by a younger generation of delegates, says journalist Hamoud al Mahmoud. "They just speak like people in the street, demonstrating in the street, yeah ... say the same thing," he says.

For example, 27-year-old Basel Geagea says Syrian tanks must move out of the protest cities: "What the young want from this conference, we want to stop the blood, we want freedom."

And 28-year-old Emir Bitar says he agrees with the demands from the streets.

"I do respect what they call for, and I think we are pretty much close in what we want," he says. He has friends on the streets, he says, and they've talked about it, and he thinks " some common ground for agreement" can be found.

In a country where more than 60 percent of the population is younger than 30, a generation has made its demands clear from the street protests and now directly to the government.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And Im Mary Louise Kelly.

For many weeks the United States has refrained from saying that the president of Syria should go. Now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has come close, essentially saying that President Bashar al-Assad does not deserve to stay.

INSKEEP: Clinton's response came after a chain of events in Syria. The American and French ambassadors visited a Syrian town to support peaceful protests, and then government supporters appeared at the U.S. Embassy, scaled the fence, smashed bullet-proof glass, destroyed security cameras and climbed onto the roof.

NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Damascus.

(Soundbite of protestors chanting in foreign language)

DEBORAH AMOS: This pro-Assad crowd was still on the street, hours after the assault. Syrian riot police were also out in force, but U.S. officials charged this protection squad had done nothing to stop the rock-throwing mob. By late afternoon, a Syrian flag still fluttered from the embassys security fence, anti-American graffiti remained on the outside wall.

(Soundbite of protestors chanting in foreign language)

AMOS: Wrapped in a Syria flag, Mohieddin Jaafar said he took aim at the U.S. Embassy and the ambassadors residence nearby.

Mr. MOHIEDDIN JAAFAR (Protestor): We - we want say: Go, America. Go out of here.

AMOS: The attack on the French Embassy, a few blocks away, appeared even more violent. Eggs on the windows, windows are smashed; looks like there were pretty big rocks that came sailing through the air to smash those windows.

French officials said protesters used a battering ram to try to get into the embassy garage and three embassy guards were hurt trying to disperse them. A small group of protesters came back later in the day to burn the French flag and point out the damage to visitors.

Who did that? Was that from rocks?

Unidentified Man: We Syrian people, yes, we broke this and the American Embassy.

AMOS: In Washington and in Paris, officials charged that Syrian authorities instigated the embassy attacks and a TV station owned by the presidents cousin incited the mob. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sharply criticized the assault. In the sharpest terms yet, she said President Bashar Assad has lost his legitimacy.

Tensions have been rising after the visit of Ambassador Robert Ford to the city of Hama last Friday. Syrian officials were outraged by the ambassador's trip, and his Facebook comments underscoring the peaceful nature of the protest.

But the diplomatic tempest overshadowed this meeting outside the capital...

(Soundbite of conversations in foreign language)

AMOS: a two-day national dialogue.

President Assad proposed this gathering to find a political solution to four months of protests. Opposition figures boycotted, organizers of the street protests werent invited. But in this unusually open discussion, those views were expressed by a younger generation of delegates, says journalist Hamoud Mahmoud.

Mr. HAMOUD MAHMOUD (Journalist): They just speak like people in the street, demonstrating.

AMOS: Say the same thing?

Mr. MAHMOUD: Yeah, say the same thing.

AMOS: For example, 27-year-old Basel Geagea says Syrian tanks must move out of the protest cities.

Mr. BASEL GEAGEA (Protestor): What the young want from this conference? We want to stop the blood. Okay? We want freedom.

AMOS: And 28-year-old Emir Bitar says he agrees with the demands from the streets.

Mr. EMIR BITAR: I do respect what they call for and I think we're pretty much close in what we want.

AMOS: Do you have friends who are on the street?

Mr. BITAR: Yes, I do.

AMOS: Do you talk about this?

Mr. BITAR: Yes, I do. And we can find some common grounds for agreement.

AMOS: In a country where more than 60 percent of the population is under 30, a generation has made their demands clear from the street, and now directly to the government.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.