The visits the American and French ambassadors, Robert Ford and Eric Chevalier, paid to Hama Friday, July 8, in the thick of the half-million turnout in Orontes Square, were more than just a provocative gesture of solidarity with the forces rallying to oust Bashar Assad; they provided a rare glimpse of the joint effort underway between Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy and Tayyip Erdoganto solve an Arab Revolt conflict by compromise.
Ambassador Ford visited Hama twice – the first time Thursday. He made a point of showing Washington's
outrage at the Assad regime's barbaric use of tank artillery, snipers and abuse to suppress the nearly four-month uprising by a visit to Hourani Hospital. There he watched the casualties of Syrian military fire being brought in, including 26 fatalities.
Those visits sparked a sharp exchange: The Syrian Interior Ministry accused the US ambassador of meeting "saboteurs and inciting them to violence, protest and rejection of dialogue," which the authorities say will begin on Sunday, July 10.
debkafile sources report that Assad has selected 244 Syrian figures for inviting to the talks. None represent the protesters or any part of the real opposition to his rule.
Damascus condemned the envoy's visits to Hama as "proof that Washington was playing a role in 15 weeks of unrest." The US State Department rejected the Syrian charge, saying the American envoy was welcomed with flowers and olive branches by peaceful civilians seeking change. They also chanted "No to dialogue!" and "Down with the regime!"
In Washington, Syrian ambassador Imad Mustapha was summoned to the State Department and warned to stop his staff spying on Syrian residents rallying against the Syrian ruler and threatening to harm their families back home.
Notwithstanding these harsh exchanges, debkafile's Middle East sources report that the Ambassadors' Hama visits were part of a complicated, high-stakes diplomatic maneuver undertaken by the US, French and Turkish leaders to forge a compromise between Assad and opposition leaders that would leave the president in place provided he accepted democratic reforms and agreed to make room for political opponents in government.
Four steps have been taken in this direction:
1. By announcing the start of dialogue with the opposition, Assad feels he is meeting a key condition for staying in power:
2. He has held back from a major military assault on the center of Hamas where demonstrators mass day by day and opted for dialogue rather than repeating the massacre his father ordered in 1982 which left at least 25,000 dead. The army has so far been restricted to forays on the town's outskirts;
3. The two ambassadors could not have visited the flashpoint city unless the military checkpoints at its approaches had been forewarned to let them through and the protesters' leaders tipped off to expect them. This concurrence between the two sides over the diplomats' presence in Hama was treated by them as a hopeful sign for the coming "national dialogue."
4. At the same time, 400 kilometers from Hama, Turkish troops are ranged on the border prepared to march into Syria and carve out a 800-square kilometer buffer zone between the Syrian, Iraqi and Turkish borders and the Mediterranean.
Our sources report this enclave would serve two objects:
One would be to provide asylum under Turkish military protection for Syrian refugees in flight from their homes. Ankara is anxious to keep down the numbers entering Turkey and plans to relocate the 25,000 already housed in tent cities there into the enclave.
The other would be to provide Syrian opposition leaders with a stronghold and a safe place to establish an alternative administration to the Assad regime in Damascus.
The Syrian conflict is now at a standoff: A massacre in Hama at the hands of the Syrian army would trigger a Turkish military incursion into Syria.
At the same, time, debkafile's sources stress, not all the protesters of the largely Muslim town of Hama are in favor of US-French-Turkish tactics. While some greeted Ambassador Ford's car with flowers and olive branches, others made a bonfire of American dollars in Orontes Square.