Syria’s army has been prevented from storming the city of Hama as a result of a visit by the French and US ambassadors, against a background of fears of a repeat of the 1982 massacres
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A Syrian flag is placed on the US embassy building in Damascus after it was attacked by Syrian government loyalists
A visit by the US ambassador to Syria to the city of Hama 220km north of the capital Damascus on Friday led to a stand-off with the Syrian army and intelligence agencies in the city during what protesters there called the "Friday of No to Dialogue". writes Bassel Oudat
Residents of the city, which two weeks ago saw the largest-ever demonstrations in its history attended by nearly half a million people, had been concerned that the Syrian army would try to storm the city, something which was at least temporarily prevented by the visit by US Ambassador Robert Ford.
In response, pro-regime demonstrators in Damascus attacked the US and French embassies in the city, waving pictures of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and chanting slogans including "we will die for you, Bashar."
The demonstrations in Hama are part of the wave of protests that has been engulfing Syria since residents of the southern city of Daraa took to the streets four months ago. Last Friday's demonstration took place without bloodshed in Hama, though dozens of protesters were killed or injured in other Syrian cities during demonstrations not attended by foreign diplomats.
Ford spent two days in Hama, and when he left his car was garlanded with flowers by residents and followed by demonstrators on motorcycles. The US ambassador was not the only diplomat to visit the city, since the French ambassador, Eric Chevallier, as well as senior diplomats from Turkey and Germany, also visited at the same time, apparently without prior coordination.
The visits by Ford and Chevallier angered the Syrian authorities, a statement from the ministry of the interior accusing Ford of "meeting with saboteurs in Hama" and "inciting them to protests, violence and the rejection of dialogue".
The statement described Ford's actions as "deepening divisions and strife among the people of a united Syria", the country's foreign ministry saying that Ford had visited the city without permission and describing his trip as "irresponsible" and "clear proof that the US is involved in events in Syria".
In response, US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that the US embassy had informed the Syrian ministry of defence about Ford's visit before it took place and that Ford had had to pass through numerous checkpoints.
Nuland denied that Ford had met with "terrorists", asserting that he had met "many ordinary citizens demanding change in their country." A US embassy spokesman in Damascus said that Ford had visited the city in order to express "solidarity with the right of the Syrian people to peaceful demonstrations".
The Syrian government has long insisted that the demonstrations in Hama and elsewhere in the country have been stirred up by armed militias hostile to the regime, but Ford said in a statement that he had not seen evidence of the existence of these.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said in Paris that the visit of the French ambassador to Hama had similarly been "to monitor events on the ground and show France's support for the Syrian people".
The Syrian official media attacked the diplomats' visits, accusing Ford of being "a terrorist". In its comment on the visit, the government-owned Al-Thawra newspaper said that there was "coordination between ambassador Ford and the saboteurs" in the city, warning that the people of Syria "would respond to the visit in their own way".
According to sources close to the American ambassador, Ford arrived in Hama on Thursday, before returning to Damascus the next day. He was greeted on his arrival by "friendly demonstrators" holding "olive branches and flowers" and chanting "down with the regime".
He met with 12 people in the city, discussing the demonstrators' political goals and vision for the country. He also visited the Al-Hurni Hospital, where injured protesters had previously been taken, the building being protected around the clock by demonstrators out of fears that the security forces would try to storm the site and arrest the wounded.
Syrian security and intelligence forces first moved into Hama one month ago, with some 100 demonstrators being killed and dozens injured over subsequent weeks. Residents have thrown stones at the security forces, blocked streets with burning tyres, and threatened revenge attacks on security personnel.
The temporary retreat of the security forces from Hama encouraged protesters meeting in the city's Al-Assi Square after Friday prayers to scale up their demonstrations, and on 1 July the city saw one of the largest demonstrations against the rule of President Al-Assad since the beginning of the demonstrations in March, with some half a million people taking to the streets and calling for an end to the regime.
In response, the Syrian leadership fired the governor of Hama and appointed a general from the military who had taken part in the suppression of protests in the city in 1982 in his stead. Thousands of troops were deployed, and hundreds of tanks headed towards the city, as families began fleeing out of fears of a potential military operation.
The Syrian opposition, which has declared its opposition to foreign interference in Syria, welcomed Ford's visit to Hama, the Local Coordination Committees of the Syrian Revolution, an umbrella group, saying that it was an opportunity for the world to learn about conditions in the country, especially given the current media blackout and the ban on international human rights organisations.
"The visit by the two ambassadors to Hama is a form of pressure that could steer the Syrian regime towards a political resolution," said Hassan Abdel-Azim, leader of the Coordination Authority of the Democratic Opposition Parties in Syria, which brings together 18 opposition parties.
However, Abdel-Azim added that the "ambassadors have their own agendas, based on the strategic, political and economic interests of the countries they represent. We rely on the Syrian people to bring about change."
In 1982, Hama was the scene of massacres carried out by Syrian troops under the rule of former president Hafez Al-Assad, father of Bashar, against Islamist demonstrators, killing nearly 30,000 people.
Rami Abdel-Rahman, director of the Syrian Human Rights Monitor, a pressure group, warned against the army interfering once again in Hama, asserting that the city was "a red line" that could set Syria ablaze.
"The Syrian authorities must think twice before sending the army and tanks into Hama," Abdel-Rahman told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Most importantly, the demonstrations have been 100 per cent peaceful, so how can the authorities justify repressive actions in front of the international community if they use the army to suppress them?"
"Hama is where the 1982 massacres took place, and this should give the Syrian authorities pause for thought," he said. "If the army goes in to suppress popular protests, the regime will enter a dangerous stage as the people will be further enraged when the first martyr falls under the wheels of a tank."
"The regime will be further isolated on the Arab and international stage, and Syria will be put in a situation the outcome of which will be anyone's guess."
Earlier this week, city residents made a series of demands to the authorities in Damascus that they said needed to be met before the city could return to normal.
First, the governor fired by Al-Assad two weeks ago would need to be reinstated; second, peaceful protesters who had been detained would need to be released; and third, the security forces would need to be withdrawn from the streets and peaceful demonstrations allowed in Al-Assi Square.
The protesters do not doubt that these demands will be rejected, as those from Daraa, Homs and the Damascus area have already been. However, some observers believe that the visits by the US and French ambassadors were meant to try to prevent the regime from reaching a point of no return in its confrontation with the people.
Should this happen, then the West would be obliged to demand that the regime step down, something on which there has as yet been no consensus.
While the visits have temporarily protected the population of Hama, drawing a red line that the regime should not cross, they have also exacerbated the diplomatic crisis between Damascus, Paris and Washington.