NBC News and news services
updated 9/29/2011 3:22:26 PM ET 2011-09-29T19:22:26

Supporters of President Bashar Assad pelted the U.S. ambassador to Syria with eggs Thursday as he entered an office for a meeting with a leading opposition figure and then tried to storm the building in the capital Damascus, the opposition activist said.

Ambassador Robert Ford, an outspoken critic of Assad's crackdown on the 6-month-old anti-government uprising, was trapped in the office for about three hours until Syria security forces showed up and escorted him out.

Ford came under attack as he arrived for a meeting with Hassan Abdul-Azim, who heads the outlawed Arab Socialist Democratic Union party.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded that Syria take steps to protect U.S. diplomats.

"We condemn this unwarranted attack in the strongest possible terms. Ambassador (Robert) Ford and his aides were conducting normal embassy business and this attempt to intimidate our diplomats through violence is wholly unjustified," Clinton said.

"We immediately raised this incident with the Syrian government and we are demanding that they take every possible step to protect our diplomats according to their obligations under international law."

Story: Syrian uprising showing signs of armed rebellion

Ford has angered the Syrian regime in past months by visiting a couple of the protest centers outside of Damascus in a show of solidarity with the anti-government uprising. The latest incident could further raise tensions between Washington and Damascus, which has accused the United States of helping incite violence in Syria. In August, President Barack Obama demanded Assad resign, saying he had lost his legitimacy as a ruler.

Abdul-Azim said Ford was inside his office when the Assad supporters tried to force their way in, breaking some door locks. Office staff prevented them from rushing in, but the ambassador was trapped inside for about three hours with some 100 hostile pro-government protesters outside.

"Two embassy cars were damaged. The U.S. delegation is still there and the crowd is surrounding the building," a witness told Reuters.

"They are chanting 'Abu Hafez (father of Hafez)'," a nickname for Assad, the witness added.

Abdul-Azim said Syrian security arrived about an hour after the attack began.

Restoring order
The Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Damascus, Haynes Mahoney, told NBC News that Ford was safe and the incident is over. He wouldn't comment on reports of egg- and stone-throwing, but told the network that the ambassador and fellow diplomats were able to leave the location once the Syrian police arrived to restore order.

The Syrian government said that once it was 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.

Video: Will next decade in Middle East be more volatile? (on this page)

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."

The attack on Ford came five days after government supporters threw eggs and stones at France's ambassador as he left a meeting in Damascus with a Greek Orthodox patriarch. Ambassador Eric Chevallier was unharmed.

Tension between the West and Syria — Iran's closest Arab ally — have been rising for months.

Washington and the European Union have imposed sanctions on some Syrian officials, including Assad, because of Assad's crackdown that has left some 2,700 people, according to the United Nations.

U.S. support for protesters
A trip in July by the U.S. and French ambassadors to the central city of Hama to express support for protesters drew swift condemnation from the Syrian government, which said the unauthorized visits were proof that Washington was inciting violence in the Arab nation. Authorities then warned both ambassadors not to travel outside the capital without permission.

A month later, the Obama administration brushed off a complaint by Syrian authorities that Ford violated their travel rules by leaving Damascus without permission. The Syrian foreign ministry registered concern over Ford's trip in August from Damascus to the southern village of Jassem, where he met opposition activists.

Last month, Ford and several other ambassadors expressed their condolences to the family of a rights advocate who was killed.

The U.S. has maintained diplomatic relations with Syria even while protesting Assad's efforts to crush the uprising.

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 Associated Press, Reuters and NBC News contributed to this report.

Video: Will next decade in Middle East be more volatile?

  1. Closed captioning of: Will next decade in Middle East be more volatile?

    >>> woodry wilson international center robin wright . robin is author of the new book "rock the casbah," rage and rebellion across the islamic world . welcome back.

    >> thanks. we've been watching across the middle east , awakening, rebellion, massive, massive change and yet one of the things you look at is how this is just only the beginning really in some ways in terms of the future of the middle east .

    >> absolutely. the next decade is likely to be more volatile than the last one was. this is a historic turning point. arguably, the most epic convulsion of the early 21st century and it will affect not only 20 million people, but it will affect us, who are oil consumers and israel 's future. this is the most volatile region in the world and it's going through what everyone else in the world has gone through with the demise of communism in the soviet union and the collapse of military dictator ships, but this is going play out so much more with so many more difficult dimensions because they've been under autocratic rule for so long.

    >> let's start with the difficult dimension, name some of the challenges and dangers of what you call this epic convulsion which is just beginning.

    >> i think the biggest problem we actually face in the region is how do you split up the political and economic spoils in the aftermath of ousters of dictators like hosni mubarak in egypt and president bennaly in tunisia ? it was during the iranian revolution that the cleric stepped in and said because there's such chaos we will impose ourselves and that's when iran became a theocracy. the danger is also on economic issues. how do you divide up limited res sources in a country like egypt with 85 million people and no oil.

    >> it was you, by the way, who said how do we divide things up in each of these cases and how much involvement do we put ourselves in? it's very controversial in the different wars we're waging and how much energy and precious blood as well as our own resources that we are spending. it's -- it's definitely a difficult road in terms of the united states just making decisions.

    >> in the aftermath of iraq and afghanistan we don't have the resources with the economic crisis we're facing. there are very limited means to provide the kind of help that's really necessary in a place like egypt or tunisia , but we can provide technical expertise in getting libya 's oil back online so that libya can begin to pay for itself and we can start reallocating our resources and aid so that we give less to egypt on military and more on the kind of development of the civil society and empowering women. the kinds of things that will help build a democracy.

    >> do you think there's a danger, robin, in countries like the united states , great britain that we look at, whatever you want to call it, the arab spring, gadhafi being deposed, mubarak being deposed that we get so giddy with the appearance of change that we lose the sense of reality on the ground. that, you know, this might not work out that well for us.

    >> and it might be very messy. democracies as we none our own country how many centuries after we were created are messy, but creating democracies is even messier, and this is going to be really tough. the raw reality is what we're facing now in the aftermath of the euphoria of ousting of some of these -- a process that's likely to go on in itself in syria , yemen and elsewhere over the next few years. all 22 arab countries are at some point going to face significant change. none of them can survive as they are even in places where the leadership remains the same, but getting through that period because there's so little experience is going to be harder than in many other parts of the wor world.

    >> what is the let level posed to israel from all of this change around israel ?

    >> one of the most interesting things to happen is neither the united states nor israel were flash points over the past ten months as we've begun to see this change. that it was a domestic issue, the thing is that we debate over at the united nations that the process gets focused on arab -israeli. i think the israelis have fumbled and they haven't known what to do with the arab spring. it's a democracy. it wants democracies elsewhere, but it also means that it can't deal one-on-one with someone like president mubarak in egypt . it sued lean gets much more complicated.

    >> do you think we learn about the future of the american foreign policy with the way president obama handled libya . he took heat in the beginning and he said it would be days and weeks, and it was ultimately weeks and months. gadhafi was deposed. do we learn about so-called leading from behind from being with the coalition of going with the french and with the british with the u.n. before jumping in head first ourselveses?

    >> it's a great question. libya will be a kind of model for what we do in the future and we will work whether through a regional group like the arab league or the united nations innen getting a resolution which made it a legitimate operation and working through nato , sharing the burden and allowing the french and british often to take the lead and other partners even outside nato to play a role. this is the kind of thing, because of our own limited resources and because of our military commitments elsewhere that we're going to increasingly going to be doing. libya is also a unique case that we can't replicate in a place like syria . moammar gadhafi is unique in terms of his eccentricities and the outrageous behavior in the past that would mobilize the community.

    >> you mentioned syria and there are outrageous things going on there now and people have been shot in the streets and it's been going for months and years. what is the american approach to syria . how do you handle that?

    >> this is one question where we're seen as hypocrites in the region that we will get involved in libya that we'll talk a big game about egypt and tunisia and we don't do much with syria beyond sanctions when we will not bring down musharraf's side and the question is do we at some point intervene in i don't think we will, but syria is the most important country in the middle east right now in terms of what happens there, and if these people who have come out week after week after week for six months to face down one of the most brutal and well-armed governments in the region, that tells you how deep the feeling is about the need for change, but also how difficult it is for us in the outside world to play much more of a role.

    >> how large a problem is that for us? i mean, we are the leading actor in the world stage and yet there's a part of us, psychologically that apparently thinks we can go to damascus or cairo or tripoli and as soon as we get there, there will be a chapter, the league of women voters and common cause. we want to sort of inflict our version of democracy on people totally unprepared for democracy.

    >> i don't necessarily believe they're totally unprepared for democracy. you have the first generation that is connected with the outside world . it has the tools of technology and that includes women. we kind of belittle them by saying they're not prepared for democracy. they have taken these actions on their own initiative and continue to define what they're doing. the energy and dynamism is really quite extraordinary. yes, they have tough challenges ahead in terms of creating a different kind of state. syria scares me a lot because i think this is a country that -- that is such a turning point in terms of israel 's future, in terms of -- it borders turkey and nato ally iraq , lebanon, jordan, but in contrast, iraq was not a model that worked. we are very good at winning wars, but we're not very good at building nations and so when we think we can help others we have to remember that we have not done so well in iraq and afghanistan . the highest death toll in afghanistan since our intervention in 2001 was last month, and --

    >> it's complicated and somewhat depressing.

    >> robin, the book, really important for everyone to read. "rock the casbah." thank you very much for coming back on the show. you did it again.


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