BEIRUT — Syrian protesters tossed roses onto the vehicle of a surprise visitor to Hama: the American ambassador, who could be seen driving through the symbolically loaded central Syrian city as a massive anti-government rally got under way Friday.
Ambassador Robert S. Ford’s unannounced visit, which outraged Syrian officials, appeared a poignant show of solidarity with the tens of thousands of protesters pouring into the streets of the nation’s towns and cities Friday in a powerful rebuttal to longtime President Bashar Assad’s ongoing use of deadly force to suppress a four-month popular uprising against his autocratic rule.
At least nine were killed across Syria Friday by security forces and pro-government gunmen, activists said; the numbers were impossible to verify because of government restrictions on independent journalism.
It was a day of protest meant to showcase rejection of Assad’s “dialogue” initiative, a still-murky series of planned meetings between the regime’s deputies and supposed opposition figures set to begin Sunday.
In Hama, video footage posted to the Internet showed crowds as far as the eye could see in the city remembered for a brutal 1982 crackdown by Assad’s father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, on what he termed an Islamist revolt. As many as 30,000 residents were believed to be killed back then by government forces, who flattened entire districts of the city.
“The people want the downfall of the regime,” protesters chanted in a deafening roar Friday, holding a massive Syrian flag in the city’s central Asi Square.
“It was a huge, very big demonstration with more than 500,000 all calling for freedom and democracy, and calling for this regime to leave,” said Omar Habbal, 57, a civil engineer and businessman in Hama reached by phone. “There was no violence, and no sign of the security forces.”
A U.S. official in Washington told the Los Angeles Times that Ford departed Hama for Damascus before Friday’s protest got fully under way after noon prayers. Video footage posted to the Internet, later confirmed in Washington, showed Hama residents chanting anti-government slogans as they walked alongside his vehicle. “He was escorted out of town by people from Hama,” said the official , speaking on condition of anonymity.
U.S. officials described Ford’s visit, which began Thursday, as a show of support for Syrians’ right to peacefully seek political change. The official in Washington said Ford met with no opposition leaders in the city. “It wasn’t meetings,” the official said. “He was there to meet with ordinary people.”
But the visit, simultaneous with one by the French ambassador, appeared clearly designed to send a message to the Syrian government that the world is watching how it treats its people, particularly those in Hama, now a city of 700,000, which became a symbol of unbridled tyranny nearly three decades ago.
“The visit was a very clever and effective way to make sure the Assad regime knows that everyone is watching what it’s doing, especially in Hama,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank. “It’s pretty clear that the Assad regime is panicking. They’re very confused about what to do.”
President Barack Obama appointed Ford during a congressional recess, defying Republican lawmakers delaying his confirmation. The trip to Hama came amidst growing criticism in Washington that Ford’s continued presence in Damascus gives Assad a diplomatic fig leaf for his regime’s violent suppression of political protest.
Syria’s state media repeatedly cited indignant comments by unnamed officials and Sunni Muslim clerics angrily denouncing Ford’s visit to Hama as interference in the country’s domestic affairs and evidence of “instigation” of protests by Washington. The U.S. State Department said the embassy had obtained permission from the foreign ministry to make the diplomatic trip to the city.
The American official in Washington said Ford did not get out of his car on Friday. “He was very careful not to interfere” in the protests, the official said. “He left before the protests started after noon prayers.”
Syrian security forces launched a sweeping military assault on the city last week after massive protests led to the firing of the provincial governor. This week’s crowd appeared to be as large or larger.
Some observers speculated that security forces on Friday instead focused their energy on towns and cities around Damascus and on the third-largest city of Homs, knowing that the mass demonstrations in Hama could inspire similar outbursts of civil disobedience.
In Dumeir, a Damascus suburb, “around 2,000 protesters came out of the mosque and around it staging a peaceful protest but that ended” when security forces fired tear gas and live ammunition, a man who gave his name as Hossein told the Times in a phone interview.
“There is still gunfire at this moment and they’re raiding house by house, one after another,” he said midafternoon Friday. “They’re making random arrests and taking anyone they see in the streets.”
Thousands took to the streets in the ethnic Kurdish cities of Qamisli and Amoud, shouting, “Azadi!” — a call for freedom in a language and culture long suppressed by Assad’s Arab-nationalist government.