Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hurled rocks and tomatoes at U.S. ambassador Robert Ford’s convoy as he visited an opposition figure in Damascus on Thursday and Syria accused Washington of inciting violence and meddling in its affairs, as Ankara asked Damascus to offer the Muslim Brotherhood government posts in exchange for Turkey’s support.
Syrian forces have killed at least twenty seven people in the last three days in an offensive to recapture the town of Rastan that has come under the control of army deserters, an activist’s body said on Thursday.
The Local Coordination Committees said two of those killed were deserters and the rest were villagers in the central town, which has been under a tank and helicopter-backed assault by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad since Tuesday.
Assad’s crackdown on six months of pro-democracy protests has envenomed relations with the United States, which has imposed fresh sanctions and rallied world pressure on Syria.
President Barack Obama took office in 2009 pledging to engage in dialogue with Damascus and named Ford as ambassador.
“Two embassy cars were damaged,” said a witness, who asked not to be identified, adding that the demonstrators were chanting “Abu Hafez (father of Hafez),” a nickname for Assad, according to Reuters.
The diplomats were visiting Hassan Abdelazim, a centrist politician who has demanded an end to Assad’s crackdown as a condition for any opposition dialogue with the president.
Ford was already inside the building when about 200 Assad supporters attacked the embassy vehicles with large rocks and street signs with concrete bases. Embassy staff inside the vehicles were not harmed. Police later extracted the convoy.
The Syrian government said that once they were alerted to the confrontation, authorities “took all necessary procedures to protect the ambassador and his team and secure their return to their place of work.” There was no immediate comment from the State Department in Washington.
Soon after the incident, the Syrian Foreign Ministry issued a statement accusing the United States of “encouraging armed groups to practice violence against the Syrian Arab Army.”
Second attack on U.S. diplomats
The attack was the second on U.S. diplomats since protests erupted in March. Assad supporters assaulted the U.S. embassy in July after Ford visited the flashpoint city of Hama, winning cheers from protesters who later faced a tank-led crackdown.
Ford, who has angered Syria’s rulers by cultivating links with the grassroots opposition, has also visited a protest hotspot in the southern province of Deraa, ignoring a new ban on Western diplomats travelling outside the Damascus area.
Two weeks ago he and several other Western envoys attended the wake of a prominent activist.
Ford arrived in Damascus in January, filling a diplomatic vacuum since Washington withdrew his predecessor in 2005. Obama had hoped the gesture would help convince Assad to reconsider his alliance with Iran and with Islamist militant groups.
Western powers are pushing for a United Nations resolution condemning Syria, although opposition from Russia and China means this is unlikely to impose immediate sanctions.
“The U.N. Security Council cannot stay quiet any longer facing the daily crimes being committed against the population by the Syrian regime,” French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said. “We want to warn the Syrian regime. We want it stop the terror and repression.”
Haitham al-Maleh, a Syrian opposition leader who is visiting France and meeting French government officials, said that during a stop in Geneva this week he had urged the U.N. Human Rights Council to prepare a file on Assad and his aides for a possible prosecution by the International Criminal Court.
“How can the international community continue to have a connection with this regime? The regime is using all types of weapons and if the international community continues to wait, you won't find anybody left but the children,” the veteran human rights lawyer told reporters in Paris.
The United Nations says Assad’s crackdown has killed at least 2,700 Syrians, including more than 100 children. Syrian authorities blame the violence on “armed terrorist gangs,” which they say have killed 700 members of the security forces.
Maleh put the death toll at 5,250, saying 5,000 people had disappeared, more than 100,000 had been arrested and 20,000 had fled to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. He called for U.N. military protection zones for civilians to be set up on the borders.
Bringing those responsible to justice
France’s human rights ambassador Francois Zimeray said his country was committed to bringing those responsible for abuses in Syria to justice. “It may take years, but the perpetrators will be judged,” he told reporters.
Armed resistance has emerged in Syria after months of mostly peaceful protests, with battles in the last few days in the town of Rastan, 180 km (112 miles) north of Damascus.
Army deserters backed by armed villagers were holding out against tank fire, but Rastan was running short of supplies, activists and residents said.
“The more they (Assad loyalists) take casualties, the more they fire at civilians,” said one resident, who gave his name as Sami, adding that defenders were holding up the tanks with booby traps and rocket-propelled grenades.
“The wounded are not being taken to hospital because it is at the front line. Makeshift clinics in homes are running out of medical supplies,” he added.
The Syrian Revolution General Commission, an umbrella for several activist groups, said the army assault had killed 41 people in Rastan in the last 72 hours, but that the figure was an estimate, with communications cut with the besieged town
Maleh said he opposed taking up weapons against the security forces, but said it was now inevitable, estimating that out of Syria’s 300,000-strong army, only the 60,000 men in a brigade commanded by Assad’s brother were fully loyal.
“The rest will not go and attack their families, parents. This army is starting to divide itself,” he said. “This kind of army will turn on the regime and attack it and finish it.”
Support for ending rallies
Ankara, meanwhile, asked Damascus to offer the Muslim Brotherhood government posts in exchange for Turkey’s support in ending rallies in Syria, an offer rejected by Assad, officials and diplomats said.
The plan, which would have required that at least a quarter of ministerial positions went to the currently banned organization, was initially mooted over the summer.
“In June, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered, if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ensured between a quarter and a third of ministers in his government were members of the Muslim Brotherhood, to make a commitment to use all his influence to end the rebellion,” a Western diplomat told AFP.
“The head of the Syrian state refused such a proposal,” said the diplomat, who did not want to be named.
A European diplomat, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that such a request had been sent to the Syrian leadership.
“The Turks proposed at first that the Muslim Brotherhood occupy four major ministries and explained that they are part of the political components of this country,” the diplomat said.
The Muslim Brotherhood has been banned in Syria since the rise of the Baath Party to power in 1963. They unsuccessfully tried to organize the population against Assad’s father and predecessor, Hafez, who brutally repressed a 1982 revolt in the city of Hama, leaving around 20,000 dead.
Law 49, issued in July 1980 and still in force, makes it a “criminal offence punishable by death to be affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Thousands of the organization’s members have languished in Syria’s prisons for decades, though some have been released.
Calling for the return of Muslim Brotherhood
On Aug. 9, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu delivered a written message to Assad from President Abdullah Gul, who belonged to organizations close to the Muslim Brotherhood before forming Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party
“We hope that some measures will be taken in the coming days to end the bloodshed and open the way to a process for political reform,” Davutoglu said at Ankara airport upon his return from the one-day trip to Syria last month.
At the time, Davutoglu spent six and a half hours in talks, half of them one on one with the Syrian leader.
During those talks, he “called for the return of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria,” a Syrian official with knowledge of the talks said.
“President Assad told him that as individuals they could certainly come back and enjoy Syrian nationality, but never as a party, because they have a religious foundation which is incompatible with Syria's secular character.”
Syria is home to 22 million people from different sects and religions. The majority of its inhabitants are Sunni Muslims, and it has a substantial Christian minority, but the country is ruled by the Alawite minority, a branch of Shiite Islam.
Assad’s rejection of Turkey’s proposal led to a dramatic worsening in ties between the two countries, and on Aug. 28, Gul said Ankara had “lost our confidence” in the Syrian regime.
More recently, during a meeting with a delegation representing Christian associations in the Middle East, Assad said, according to several news outlets, that he “refused that Ottomanism would replace Arabism, or that Ankara would become the decision-making centre of the Arab world.”
He also voiced his opposition to religious parties participating in Syrian politics because “this would allow the Muslim Brotherhood, which is headquartered in Ankara, to control the region.”
Asked about the offer made to Damascus, an official in the Turkish foreign ministry told AFP: “This is the first I have heard of that, but we have always said (to Syria) that if you do not share power through elections, and if you do not make reforms ... things will become difficult for you.”