Challenging a Syrian government order, the Obama administration insisted Wednesday on the rights of the U.S. ambassador and other diplomats to travel throughout the Arab country to document a crackdown by a regime intent on suppressing its acts from journalists, human rights monitors and foreign diplomats.
President Bashar Assad's government ordered diplomats not to leave the capital without permission Wednesday, two weeks after the U.S. and French ambassadors angered the regime by visiting the restive city of Hama. If the U.S. and French envoys disobey the order, all diplomats will be banned from leaving Damascus, Syria's foreign minister warned Wednesday.
"These are not the acts of a government that has nothing to hide," State Department spokeswoman Heide Bronke Fulton said. "Given that the Syrian government refuses to allow international media, aid workers and human rights personnel, diplomats have to be able to travel throughout the country to monitor the situation on the ground."
Human rights groups say more than 1,600 people have been killed in four months of unrest, and the Obama administration has toughened its rhetoric toward President Bashar Assad's regime, declaring last week that he has lost all legitimacy as a leader. Activists say more than 1,600 people, mostly unarmed protesters, have been killed.
It is unclear what role Ambassador Robert Ford's trip played in that shift, but officials explained his presence in Hama as a sign of solidarity with peaceful protesters increasingly pressing for an end to four decades of stifling dictatorship under the Assad family. Friendly Syrians welcomed Ford and lavished his car with flowers and olive branches.
The voyage was immediately denounced by the Syrian government, which accused Ford of fomenting rebellion. Regime supporters then attacked the U.S. and French embassies in Damascus, smashing windows and painting graffiti. And on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem took the dispute a step farther by announcing during a lecture at Damascus University that the government could limit diplomats to a 15-mile radius of Damascus.
Bronke Fulton said U.S. officials would evaluate the Syrian government's restrictions. She said the U.S. would respond accordingly if the government "inhibits the ability of our diplomats to effectively carry out their responsibilities within Syria."
President Barack Obama appointed Ford as ambassador in January, after the post was left unfilled for five years in protest of alleged Syrian involvement in the assassination of Lebanese politician Rafik Hariri.
Republican members of Congress have challenged Ford's continued presence in the country, calling it an unwarranted reward to Assad's often pro-Iran and anti-U.S. government stance, and untenable in light of recent violence against civilians.
But the administration says Ford and his staff are providing assessments of the unrest that are especially valuable while nearly all foreign media are banned from Syria.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.