(Updates with statement from Nuland about reports of Syrian surveillance of protesters in the U.S. starting in sixth paragraph.)
July 9 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. has a new way to show displeasure with Syria: Send its ambassador to meet with residents of Hama, an anti-regime hot spot and scene of a government massacre of opponents three decades ago.
Republicans in Congress have urged the Obama administration to recall its envoy to Damascus, repeating a protest made by President George W. Bush in 2005. Instead, Robert Ford, the first U.S. ambassador to Syria in six years, traveled 129 miles (207 kilometers) north of the capital in a gesture of support for the 500,000 people rallying for the end of rule of President Bashar al-Assad under threat from government forces.
“For him to go personally at this time and stand with the people of Hama, I think, expresses in physical terms, not to mention political terms, our view that the people of Hama have a right to express themselves peacefully and that we are concerned about the posture that the security forces have taken,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday.
Ford was welcomed by cheering Syrians waving olive branches and placing flowers on his car, Nuland told reporters in Washington, citing a YouTube video clip posted by members of an opposition party.
Syria’s state-run media called his trip a U.S. effort to “incite” unrest.
Responding to a question during the briefing yesterday, Nuland said in a statement released later in the day that the Syrian ambassador to the U.S., Imad Moustapha, had been called to the State Department on July 6 to hear U.S. concerns about reports that Syrian mission personnel “under Moustapha’s authority” had conducted video and photographic surveillance of people at anti-Assad demonstrations in the U.S.
She said the department was investigating reports that the Assad government has sought retribution against family members in Syria for the actions of relatives in the U.S. “The United States government takes very seriously reports of any foreign government actions attempting to intimidate individuals in the United States who are exercising their lawful right to freedom of speech,” she said.
The past four months of protests have been the biggest challenge to the Assad family since 1982, when Hama was at the heart of an uprising led by Islamist forces. Assad’s father and predecessor, then-President Hafez al-Assad, used the army to crush the rebellion in actions that Human Rights Watch said killed about 10,000 people.
At least 500,000 people rallied yesterday in the city of Hama, said Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria. Syrian forces have killed more than 1,650 people in this year’s unrest, according to Qurabi and Mahmoud Merhi, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights.
Ford’s overnight stay in the city, where he met with residents and visited a hospital, was condemned by the Syrian government, which said the trip was unauthorized. It accused the U.S. administration of fomenting rebellion.
Syria’s Foreign Ministry said Ford didn’t obtain permission for his visit to Hama, according to a statement carried by the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, and his visit is “clear evidence of the involvement of the United States in current events in Syria and is an attempt to incite an escalation of the situation which disturbs the security and stability” of Syria.
Nuland called Syria’s claims “absolute rubbish” and said the U.S. embassy informed the Syrian defense ministry that diplomatic personnel would be headed to Hama. Ford left the city yesterday around lunchtime before protests were called after prayers, she said.
In Washington, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, “has been and continues to oppose the misguided policy of legitimizing the Syrian regime through the presence of a U.S. ambassador in Damascus,” her spokesman, Brad Goehner, said in an e-mail yesterday.
In 2005, the George W. Bush administration recalled then- ambassador to Syria, Margaret Scobey, to protest what it saw as Syria’s role in the murder of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister of Lebanon.
It’s not the first time Democrats and Republicans clashed on Syria. Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, defied the White House and went on a diplomatic mission to Syria in 2007 as speaker of the House. Bush White House officials said her visit undermined U.S. efforts to isolate Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Diplomatic relations with Syria were severed in 1967 and re-established in 1974. Ford is the 10th U.S. envoy to the Arab country.
The U.S. administration, starting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has stepped up criticism of the Assad regime while falling short of asking him to step down. John McCain, who lost the 2008 election to President Barack Obama, said on May 13 it was time for Assad “and his regime to go.”
In Egypt, it took 18 days of protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to topple Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak while it took Obama two weeks to urge the autocrat to resign.
Assad is “running out of time” as his administration is failing to accommodate the demands of anti-government protesters, Clinton told reporters in Vilnius, Lithuania, in her last public comments about the unrest in Syria. She said she was “disheartened” by events in the Middle Eastern country.
--With assistance from Massoud A. Derhally in Beirut. Editors: Terry Atlas, Steven Komarow
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