It's another Friday in the Arab world, and once again Syria is witnessing huge demonstrations.
This time, Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador in Damascus, decided to hoof it up to Hama to scope out the scene for himself. Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, said Thursday that Ford had "spent the day expressing our deep support for the right of the Syrian people to assemble peacefully and to express themselves."
She added: "So for him to go personally at this time and stand with the people of Hama, I think, expresses in physical terms, not to mention political terms, our view that the people of Hama have a right to express themselves peacefully and that we are concerned about the posture that the security forces have taken." She also said Ford had received a "very warm welcome" in Hama, where he met with at least a dozen residents of the city.
Former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, who has been outspoken in calling for stronger U.S. action in Syria, cheered the visit. "The powerful visit of Ambassador Ford to #Hama shows the value of his ongoing presence in #Syria and knocked the regime off balance," he tweeted.
Here's what Ford would have seen today:
So far, Ford's move doesn't seem to have deterred protesters from coming out in cities and neighborhoods all across Syria, from Raqqa and Qamishle in the north to Deir az-Zour and Albu Kamal in the south to the Midan and Qaboun areas of the capital. There were even small demonstrations in quiescent Aleppo, according to Syrian activists.
Still, the Syrian regime sees an opening, and has sought to paint Ford's visit as proof positive that the evil Americans are behind the actions of the "sabateurs" who are bent on destroying the country and neutralizing its "resistance" to Israel.
Will it work? Perhaps on some Syrians, but I think we're well past the point where too many folks are buying what the regime is selling. Week after week, the protests keep swelling and spreading to new areas, and it's clear that it's ordinary Syrians who are voicing disapproval of their government, not foreign agents.
And it's not as if Assad and friends haven't been trying all along to push the "foreign conspiracy" line, even as they pretend to engage in dialogue with an opposition whose demands the government has deemed broadly legitimate. As Andrew Exum, a Levant expert at the Center for a New American Security tweeted, "Re: Ford's visit to Hama, what did he have to lose? Does it in any way affect the protests if they are branded in league with the #USA? ... I mean, look, gang: it's not as if Bashar al-Asad and his stooges would go any easier on the protesters if the #USA did not side with them."
UPDATE: And here's a video showing Ford driving through Hama. He's welcomed by protesters wielding... olive branches and roses:
The crowd chants: "The people demand the fall of the regime" and "We kneel only for God."