A video has emerged of U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford being assaulted by a pro-regime demonstrator on the streets of Damascus last week.
The assault took place before Ford's unapproved trip to the city of Jassem on Aug 23. Ford was present at a gathering of demonstrators who support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad outside the Cham Palace Hotel in Damascus when one demonstrator ran up to Ford and tried to wrap him in a poster that featured Assad's face.
Ford's security intervened quickly and rushed Ford to his car. The incident was then replayed in a highly produced segment on a Syrian television station owned by Mohamed Hamsho, a businessman who is the brother-in-law of the president's brother, Maher al-Assad. Hamsho was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department earlier this month for siding with the Assad regime during its brutal crackdown on protesters.
Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian activist opposed to Assad and who lives in Maryland, said the TV report accuses Ford of trying to lead a protest in Damascus and even features an out-of-context quote from Edward Peck, the former U.S. diplomat who is now a strong critic of U.S. policy in the Middle East and who took a ride on the May 2010 flotilla that tried to break the Gaza blockade and was attacked by the Israel Defense Forces.
"The reporting is of course stupid" Abdulhamid wrote. "The plain facts are: as Ambassador Ford observed a loyalist demonstration, some of the demonstrators jumped at him when they recognized him and tried to wrap a poster of Bashar Al-Assad around him, but the Ambassador's security details managed to rush him safely into his car. There was no anti-Assad demonstration at the time, security in that area is simply too tight."
A State Department official told The Cable today that the video was "a weak, banal, laughable attempt by the Syrian thugs to have the international community focus on anything but the real story, which is the government's continuing campaign of terror on its own people through torture, murder, and illegal imprisonment."
Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of a new book about the U.S.-Syria relationship, In the Lion's Den, said that the Assad regime has been harassing Ford for weeks with stunts like this.
For example, the same TV station recently showed a video of fireworks in downtown Damascus, after which the anchor said Ford must have been "shitting his pants with diarrhea," Tabler recounted.
After Ford visited anti-regime protests in the city of Hama in July, the regime encouraged supporters to pelt the U.S. Embassy with rocks and eggs. The protesters smashed embassy windows and wrote graffiti on the walls calling Ford a "dog."
"It's annoying and shows you the base nature of that regime," said Tabler. "This regime hates to be in the spotlight. Robert Ford's actions there place those kinds of things in the spotlight and that's why they are harassing him."
Of course, it's possible that Ford is actually trying to get himself kicked out of Syria by the Assad regime. That would allow the Obama administration to spotlight Assad's intolerance and allow the State Department to avoid a fight over Ford's Senate confirmation.
Until that happens, Ford is going to continue to do his job and try to interact with the Syrian people, said Tabler. But, he added, "the way things are going, it's probably a matter of time" before Ford gets booted.
View the video here:
UPDATE: A State Department official writes in to say that Ford was not attending a pro-regime demonstration. He was watching an anti-government sit-in by some lawyers at the Syrian Bar Association. He was assaulted while standing outside the bar association, waiting to see whether the pro-government thugs assembled outside would assault the protesting lawyers when they came out. The thugs didn't like that he was watching.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.