The United States’ top envoy in Damascus defied the Syrian government Tuesday by making an unannounced visit to the restive town of Jassem, where he met with members of the opposition movement, State Department officials confirmed.
Ambassador Robert S. Ford spent nearly four hours in the town, located 40 miles south of the capital, and declined to inform Syrian authorities of the visit until after his return, department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters. Syrian officials had clamped restrictions on Ford’s travel in the country following his surprise trip last month to the city of Hama, a visit intended to show support for pro-democracy demonstrators there.
Ford decided to go it alone after Syrian officials denied several requests by the U.S. embassy for permission to travel to various destinations around the country, including Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, Nuland said.
“He informed the Syrian Foreign Ministry after the visit, and he made clear to them that the reason that he didn’t inform them before the visit was because they haven’t been approving any visits by anybody, anywhere,” Nuland said.
During his four-hour stop, Ford spoke to a number of Syrians, including opposition figures, to express his admiration for their commitment to peaceful protest, Nuland said. Afterward he drove back to Damascus, she said.
There was no immediate response from the Syrian government, but government agents appeared to track his movements, Nuland said. Jassem, a town in the southern district of Darayya, has been the scene of repeated anti-government protests since mid-March.
Syria’s imposition of travel restrictions on U.S. diplomats prompted a retaliatory move by the State Department, which barred Syrian officials from traveling outside the Washington area without advance notice.