Middle East
4:00 am
Tue July 12, 2011

U.S. Accuses Syrian Government In Embassy Attacks

U.S. officials accuse the Syrian government of orchestrating Monday's attack on the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Damascus. Supporters of President Bashar Assad scaled the embassy fence, smashed bullet-proof glass and security cameras, and climbed onto the roof. The French Embassy was also targeted.

The assault came three days after a surprise visit by the American and French ambassadors to the city of Hama to show support for peaceful protests there.

Hours after the assault, a pro-Assad crowd was still on the street and Syrian riot police were out in force. But U.S. officials charged that the protection squad had done nothing to stop the rock-throwing mob that attacked the embassy. By late afternoon, a Syrian flag still fluttered from the compound's security fence, and anti-American graffiti remained on the outside wall.

Wrapped in a Syrian flag, Mohieddin Jaafar said he took aim at the U.S. Embassy and the ambassador's residence nearby.

"We want to say 'Go out America. Go out France,' " Jaafar said.

The attack on the French embassy a few blocks away appeared to have been even more violent. French officials said protesters used a battering ram to try to get into the embassy garage, and three guards were hurt trying to disperse them.

Later in the day, a small group of protesters came back to burn the French flag — and point out the damage to visitors. "Who did that? Was that from rocks? We Syrian people, yes, we broke this, and the American embassy," one protester said.

In Washington, D.C., and in Paris, officials charged that Syrian authorities instigated the embassy attacks and that a television station owned by the president's cousin incited the mob. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sharply criticized the assault. In the harshest terms yet, she said Monday that President Assad has lost his legitimacy.

Tensions have been rising after the visit of Ambassador Robert Ford to the city of Hama last Friday. Syrian officials were outraged by the ambassador's trip — and his Facebook comments underscoring the peaceful nature of the protest.

But the diplomatic tempest overshadowed a meeting outside the capital, a gathering proposed by Assad to find a political solution to four months of protests. Opposition figures boycotted and organizers of the street protests weren't invited, but in this unusually open discussion, those views were expressed by a younger generation of delegates, says journalist Hamoud al Mahmoud. "They just speak like people in the street, demonstrating in the street, yeah ... say the same thing," he says.

For example, 27-year-old Basel Geagea says Syrian tanks must move out of the protest cities: "What the young want from this conference, we want to stop the blood, we want freedom."

And 28-year-old Emir Bitar says he agrees with the demands from the streets.

"I do respect what they call for, and I think we are pretty much close in what we want," he says. He has friends on the streets, he says, and they've talked about it, and he thinks " some common ground for agreement" can be found.

In a country where more than 60 percent of the population is younger than 30, a generation has made its demands clear from the street protests and now directly to the government.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.