The United States and France sent their ambassadors back to Syria to champion protesters, demanding that the regime protect the envoys who had been pulled out due to safety fears.
US Ambassador Robert Ford and French Ambassador Eric Chevallier had faced harassment and threats as they shone a light on President Bashar al-Assad’s nine-month crackdown, in which more than 4,000 people are said to have died.
“We believe his presence in the country is among the most effective ways to send the message that the United States stands with the people of Syria,” US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said as the two envoys flew back in.
Ford will seek to provide “reliable reporting on the situation on the ground” and engage “with the full spectrum of Syrian society on how to end the bloodshed and achieve a peaceful political transition,” Toner said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney demanded that Syria uphold international obligations to protect foreign diplomats and allow US officers “to conduct their work free of intimidation or obstacles.”
In Paris, deputy foreign ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said that the concerns that led to Chevallier’s recall have not gone away but that “his work on the ground in Syria is important.”
“France is more than ever at the side of the Syrian people,” Nadal told AFP.
The US and French ambassadors had both traveled in Syria to document protests and show their support, amid official attempts to prevent international media and observers from witnessing the crackdown firsthand.
The United States announced on October 24 that Ford had been brought back to Washington because of “credible threats.” Assad supporters had pelted Ford and the embassy staff with tomatoes and damaged US vehicles as they visited an opposition leader in Damascus.
The French ambassador was recalled on November 16 after mobs loyal to Assad attacked France’s honorary consulate in the northern city of Latakia and the detached chancery in Aleppo.
Toner said the United States “felt there was a sense of urgency” in sending Ford back to Damascus but said that Washington would “keep a close eye” on what it viewed as threats to him, including articles in the state-run press.
In further pressure on Syria, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday held talks in Geneva with seven opponents of Assad. She called for the protection of women and minorities, a key concern for a future without Assad, as he comes from the minority Alawite sect.
“The Syrian opposition as represented here recognizes that Syria’s minorities have legitimate questions and concerns about their future,” Clinton said in talks with the dissident Syrian National Council, which was formed in October.
Minorities “need to be assured that Syria will be better off under a regime of tolerance and freedom that provides opportunity and respect and dignity on the basis of the consent rather than on the whims of a dictator,” Clinton said.
Syria has come under intense international pressure as Assad tries to crush the worst threat to his family’s four-decade rule over the country, with the United States, European Union, Arab League and Turkey all imposing sanctions.
The Arab League has threatened to slap new sanctions on Damascus unless it lets in monitors. In a letter late Sunday, Assad’s regime said it will allow monitors but only if conditions are met.
Syria accuses “armed terrorist groups” of fueling the unrest, which comes amid a wave of street protests across the Arab world this year that have toppled authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.
President Barack Obama appointed Ford, a veteran diplomat in the Arab world, as the first US ambassador to Syria in five years as part of his administration’s effort to engage US adversaries.
Obama’s Republican opponents initially denounced the move, saying it sent the wrong signal to Assad, but have lent support to Ford as his mission turns dangerous.
Senator John Kerry, an Obama ally who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Ford “guts and grit personified.”
“He is an ambassador who has helped expose the crimes of the Assad regime and he’s demonstrated enormous courage,” Kerry said.