President Bashar Assad's Syrian government appears to be escalating its intimidation campaign against domestic and foreign critics. Opposition forces say the body of Ibrahim Qashoush, who wrote a popular song calling for the dictator's fall, was found floating in a river last week. His throat had been cut.
Pro-Assad demonstrators - angered by last week's visits by the U.S. and French ambassadors to Hama, an opposition stronghold - attacked and vandalized the U.S. and French embassies in Damascus on Monday.
Rioters breached the walls of both embassy compounds, smashing windows, throwing rocks, and vandalizing cars owned by embassy employees. At the U.S. Embassy, demonstrators waving pictures of the Syrian dictator chanted "We will die for you, Bashar." Protesters threw trash, tomatoes and eggs, replaced the American flag with a Syrian one and attacked U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford's residence. Witnesses said security officers and men wearing riot gear appeared to do nothing to restrain the mobs.
French officials said their ambassador's car was vandalized and the mob tried to use a battering ram to break through the embassy's front doors. Officials said French guards fired three warning shots because of the "passivity" of Syrian military forces in dealing with the rioters.
The violence in Damascus contrasted sharply with the calm in Hama, a city where Syrian security forces dispatched by then-Syrian president Hafez Assad, Bashar's father, massacred tens of thousands of people in 1982. More than 70 people were shot to death in Hama after Friday prayers earlier this month. Government forces withdrew shortly afterward, and Hama residents now govern the city themselves.
When Ford visited Hama on Friday, he was warmly welcomed by residents bearing flowers and olive branches.
"The people in Hama have been demonstrating peacefully for weeks," Ford wrote on his Facebook page after visiting Hama. But Assad, "who promised in his last speech that that there would be no more arrests without judicial process," has broken his word.
"Families in Hama told me of repeated cases where this was not the reality. And I saw no signs of armed gangs anywhere - not at any of the civilian street barricades we passed," he added.
David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy praised Ford's visit to Hama as the first "unambiguous" demonstration of Obama Administration support for the Syrian opposition. But Schenker (who previously served as the Pentagon's top policy official dealing with the Arab countries of the Levant) said the move would be regarded as mere free-lancing by Ford unless it is part of an overall tougher approach in which Washington makes clear it regards the Assad regime as "no longer legitimate, if it ever was."