Syrian protesters gave U.S. ambassador Robert Ford a heroes’ welcome in Hama, angering Syrian President Bashar Assad, but Ford was afraid to allow the American flag on his car.
Congressmen have increasingly heaped criticism on U.S. President Barack Obama for keeping Ford in Syria, a country designated as one supporting terror, but the executive administration has argued that his presence can help “engage” Assad.
In Hama on Friday, his “car was immediately surrounded by friendly protestors who were putting flowers on the windshield,” said U.S. State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland. “They were putting olive branches on the car, they were chanting ‘down with the regime.’ and it was quite a scene."
“He was warmly welcomed yesterday, and today you saw the crowds surrounding the car saying, ‘Down with the regime.’ So that was their message back to him.”
She added that Ford did not get out of his vehicle because he did not want to become the “story,” which was his support for democratic rights.
His safety also may have been a consideration. Nuland told reporters, “As his car started to try to leave Hama, he was escorted out of town by a group of friendly young men on motorcycles who were bent on ensuring that he didn’t have any security trouble getting out of the city.
The United States notified the Syrian government ahead of Ford’s arrival, but the senior diplomat nevertheless had to pass through a military checkpoint. She added, “I think he did not fly the flag. Generally, these days for security reasons, we don’t fly the flag.”
Syria charged that Ford was trying to provoke more protests, an accusation that Nuland dismissed as “absolute rubbish.” Bouthaina Shaaban, the Syrian advisor to Assad, accused Ford of having connections with “militant groups,” according to one reporter who questioned Nuland.
Nuland said, “The Syrian Government has claimed many things. It’s claimed that there are foreign instigators behind what’s going on in their country. It’s claimed that there are gangs of young men instigating these things. That is not what he [Ford] witnessed. He witnessed average Syrians asking for change in their country. And he left early today so as to make clear that this was not about us, this is about the rights of the Syrian citizens.”
Meanwhile, The State Department has summoned Syria's ambassador Imad Mustapha following "a number of U.S. concerns" involving Syrian embassy staff photographing people in the protests in the United States.