Martin Chulov – Guardian July 9, 2011
Tens of thousands of people rallied in the Syrian city of Hama for a second Friday, calling for departure of President Bashar al-Assad, denouncing a government conference set to begin this weekend – and throwing red roses at visiting US ambassador Robert Ford. The unannounced visit acted as a lightning rod for activists, but drew a stern rebuke from the government, which accused Ford of meeting with saboteurs and conspiring to undermine the regime. Ford is understood to have left the besieged city before the protests started. Activists said security forces shot dead 13 people elsewhere, including six in Dumair, near Damascus. More than 40 were said to have been wounded. Violence was reported in the nearby city of Homs, as well as Qaboon in central Damascus and Meedan.
Ford’s convoy was allowed through the Syrian army checkpoints on the outskirts of the city and along the road to the capital.
However government officials remain furious with the first public act of solidarity by a resident diplomat since the uprising began in March. Ford and other senior ambassadors had previously been criticised by some Syrian opposition leaders and by US lawmakers from remaining in Syria while the government crackdown against demonstrators continued.
The Obama administration has repeatedly called for an end to the brutal crackdown against demonstrators and has imposed extra sanctions on senior regime figures. However, it has not called for Assad to stand down – a position that some critics say has given Assad little incentive to stop the widespread use of military forces to quell dissent.
Ford’s convoy was surrounded by Hama residents earlier today, some of whom threw red roses. Others waved olive branches as the convoy slowly made its way through the streets of Syria’s fourth city in a highly symbolic victory, which was captured on cameras and quickly uploaded to YouTube.
Authorities again seemed unsure of how to react to the mass display of subversion in Hama, which had seen the army encircle the city ahead of Friday prayers and cut electricity and water supplies to the city at times during the week. Syrian forces had remained outside city limits as nightfall approached.
The Syrian foreign ministry said. “The presence of the US ambassador in Hama without previous permission is obvious proof of a clear evidence of the United States‘ involvement in current events in Syria and its attempt to incite an escalation in the situation, which disturbs Syria’s security and stability.”
One resident speaking from Hama said he feared that the military would on Friday enter the city in large numbers to seek vengeance for the mutual show of support between the US and Hama residents.
“They have been waiting for their moment but are not sure when to take it,” said one man.
As protests wound down in Damascus on Friday, security forces swept in large numbers through the Meedan area in Damascus, with reports of widespread shooting and injuries.
Assad has said the national dialogue conference, which is due to begin on Monday will be a landmark moment in the uprising, paving the way for a change in electoral laws, away from one party rule and a broader voice for dissenters in the affairs of state.
However, Hama residents on Friday said the dialogue process was a fig leaf designed to create the impression of inclusiveness, but instead maintain a status quo of absolute power among the four-decade old regime.
“Anything that Assad sanctions he controls,” said a second Hama resident. “There can be no dialogue while he remains in power.”
Courtesy Peter Myers