BEIRUT — Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has lost legitimacy and is "not indispensable," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday as tensions soared over an assault by Assad loyalists on the U.S. and French embassies in Damascus.
Clinton condemned the Syrian attacks and said Washington did not believe the long-time Syrian ruler would follow through on his promises to reform in the face of escalating protests against his rule.
"From our perspective, he has lost legitimacy, he has failed to deliver on the promises he's made, he has sought and accepted aid from the Iranians as to how to repress his own people," Clinton told reporters in an appearance with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Washington.
Clinton's comments marked a significant sharpening of U.S. rhetoric on Assad, whose security forces have waged an increasingly brutal crackdown against protesters inspired by pro-democracy movements elsewhere in the Arab world.
Syrian government supporters smashed windows at the U.S. and French embassies in Damascus on Monday, raised Syrian flags and scrawled graffiti calling the U.S. ambassador a "dog" in anger over a visit last week to an opposition stronghold.
They tore down U.S. Embassy plaques and tried to break security glass, diplomats said, in an escalation of protests against the visit by the U.S. and French ambassadors to the city of Hama, which has seen demonstrations against Assad.
"Four buses full of shabbiha (militia loyal to Assad) came from Tartous. They used a battering ram to try to break into the main door," a resident of Afif, the old district where the U.S. Embassy is located, told Reuters by telephone.
"This is a violent escalation by the regime," said a Western diplomat in the Syrian capital. "You do not bring bus loads of thugs into central Damascus from the coast without its consent."
After the crowd was dispersed, protesters moved to the residence of U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford and attacked it, causing unspecified damage, officials said. No staff at either location were injured and no personnel were ever in imminent danger, the officials said.
French Embassy security guards fired in the air to hold back supporters of Assad's regime who were also protesting the French ambassador's visit to Hama, in central Syria.
Protesters smashed French Embassy windows, shattered the windshield of a diplomatic SUV outside the compound and replaced the French flag with a Syrian one. The French Foreign Ministry said three embassy workers were injured.
"God, Syria and Bashar. The nation that gave birth to Bashar Assad will not kneel," read graffiti outside the embassy.
One witness said three protesters were injured when guards beat them with clubs. The witness asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation.
The Syrian regime called the visits to Hama interference in the country's internal affairs and accused the ambassadors of undermining Syria's stability.
The U.S. State Department on Monday condemned Syria for failing to protect the U.S. embassy.
"A television station that is heavily influenced by Syrian authorities encouraged this violent demonstration," a State Department spokesperson said in a statement.
"We strongly condemn the Syrian government's refusal to protect our embassy, and demand compensation for damages," the statement said.
Because the Marine guard contingent at the embassy reacted quickly, the attackers were not able to break into any buildings and there were no injuries reported, an official said. But the official said the attackers did damage the chancery building. The damage is still being assessed, the official said.
On Sunday, the State Department complained that pro-government demonstrators threw tomatoes, eggs and rocks at the embassy over the weekend to protest Ford's visit. There were no reports of injuries, but a senior department official said two embassy employees were pelted with food during the 31-hour demonstration.
Ford has harshly criticized the Syrian government's crackdown on a popular uprising. Some 1,600 civilians and 350 members of security forces have been killed since demonstrations began, activists say.
The White House has so far refrained from calling for an end to the Assad family's four decades of rule, leery of pressing too hard as it tries to wind down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and faces criticism for being part of the coalition battling Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.
Syria blames what it calls "armed gangs" and Muslim extremists for the violence.
On Sunday, Ford attacked the Syrian government for allowing pro-government protests while beating up anti-regime demonstrators. The pro-Assad protests in Syria are known as "mnhebak," or "we love you."
"I have not seen the police assault a "mnhebak" demonstration yet," Ford wrote on the embassy's Facebook page. "On July 9, a "mnhebak" group threw rocks at our embassy, causing some damage. They resorted to violence, unlike the people in Hama, who have stayed peaceful."Story: US ambassador's visit to restive Syrian city riles regime
"And how ironic that the Syrian Government lets an anti-U.S. demonstration proceed freely while their security thugs beat down olive branch-carrying peaceful protesters elsewhere," he said. "I saw no signs of armed gangs anywhere not at any of the civilian street barricades we passed."
"Hama and the Syrian crisis is not about the U.S. at all. This is a crisis the Syrian people are in the process of solving. It is a crisis about dignity, human rights, and the rule of law," Ford wrote.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.